More than the three and half years after negotiators ironed out the Paris Climate Agreement, the temperature in Paris this week soared to an all-time high, 108.7 degrees Fahrenheit, smashing the old record by 4 degrees. At the same time, all-time national highs were set in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. As most businesses and residences in these countries are not equipped with air conditioning, government authorities in Paris and elsewhere issued red alerts.
More energy-efficient air conditioning could help heat-stricken populations cope with rising temperatures, but will likely exacerbate the challenge posed by climate change.
Bloggers for the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), plotted our energy scenarios this week in which “air conditioning is assumed to increase significantly over the next 30 years, with as much as 75 percent of the total population living in hot countries potentially having an air conditioner by 2050.” That’s a significant increase, as they estimate less than 10 percent of people in hot countries own an air conditioner today.
According to the IEA, cooling energy use in buildings has doubled since 2000. Air conditioners and electric fans today account for about a fifth of the total electricity used in buildings and 10 percent of all global electricity consumption. And demand is soaring. Last year, the IEA projected that global energy demand from air conditioners will triple by 2050, requiring new electricity capacity “the equivalent to the combined electricity capacity of the United States, the EU and Japan today.”
The IEA, which prides itself on shaping a secure and sustainable energy future, hopes that advances in energy-efficient air conditioning will substantially reduce the anticipated AC energy demand. Still, as acknowledged by Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director, “Growing demand for air conditioners is one of the most critical blind spots in today’s energy debate.”
That blind spot is one of many. One of the biggest escaped the political heat in Washington, DC, and flew down to his Mar-a-Lago club on Friday. When he’s not denying the reality of climate change or conflating greenhouse gas emissions with the air pollutants that darken skies, President Trump is promoting the expanded use of coal.
There is, however, a larger overarching problem. It’s our belief that technology is—if not the answer—a big part of the answer. If greater fuel or energy efficiency was ‘the answer’ to greenhouse gas emissions, the problem would have been solved long ago. Despite major advances in auto fuel efficiency and more energy efficient homes and appliances, global demand for energy has grown by leaps and bounds in the past half century.
Some of that increased demand is the result of rising incomes and ever growing population numbers, but advances in energy efficiency, by lowering the operating costs, have often increased demand for energy-consuming products, including automobiles and air conditioners. This paradox is nothing new. Long ago, Williams Jevons, an 18th century English economist, noted that the invention of more fuel-efficient coal-fired steam engines boosted the demand for coal.
The underlying problem, and it’s a whopper, is that the global growth model is fundamentally flawed. It is predicated on the idea that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the measure of our success, without regard to the harm that GDP growth inflicts on the environment.
Adjusting the calculation of GDP to take into account the environmental costs could give us a more accurate gauge of economic progress, but it might achieve little, just as improved accounting for government spending has done almost nothing to promote fiscal responsibility.
Some believe that market-driven capitalism must be abandoned, but markets—if the price signals are accurate—serve to allocate resources efficiently. Capitalism needs to be urgently reformed, not abandoned. We need a fundamental overhaul of the price signals that drive economic decision making and investments in technology. A hefty carbon tax would be a good start, but what we really need is a far more sweeping change. Rather than taxing labor so heavily, we should be taxing pollutants and the over consumption of scarce resources, and using the revenues to achieve greater income equality. But make no mistake about it, tax reform on the scale that is required, will not be an easy lift.
Change of the magnitude we need will not happen until we come to grips with the magnitude of the environmental challenges we face. And it’s not just climate change, as important as that is. Humanity is, quite simply, overwhelming the planet. There are at present 7.7 billion of us on the planet, and, according to the latest UN projections, we are on course to add another 2 billion by mid-century. At the same time, the world’s middle class is expanding rapidly, and will be demanding more water, more food, more energy, and more metal and mineral resources.
Nature cannot keep up with our demands and more energy efficient air conditioners are not going to save us.
This op-ed by Population Institute President Robert Walker originally ran on July 29, 2019 in Newsweek