Summertime is here! While getting some sunshine occasionally is relaxing and refreshing, waking up in the middle of the night sweating is absolutely no fun. In recent years, the summer heat has consistently reached records highs, especially this year – 124 degrees Fahrenheit in Africa, 106 in Japan, and 98 in North America so far. Look at the heat map above, most of the continents are covered in bright red color – with dark red and nearly brown color in North Africa – indicating this summer was an unbearably hot one. In Japan, at least 80 people have died from heat-related causes and more than 22,000 people have required hospitalization for heat stroke. In California, dry conditions and heat waves have caused several unstoppable wildfires, burning down thousands of acres of lands and destroying hundreds of edifices. In England, speed restrictions for railways were issued as a result of the heatwave, with concerns that rails might buckle as temperatures rise. Abnormally high temperatures are just one of the direct results of global warming, but how completely aware are we of the cause?
When people think of a hot summer, the first thing that pops into one’s head might be – turn that air conditioner on! That’s right, the heat is so intolerable that turning on the AC becomes a priority when people get home – sometimes, people leave it on even while they are not home. However, air conditioning was the epitome of luxury when it was first invented in the 18th century. Not until the beginning of the 19th century, when the temperatures became too high to undergo, did air conditioners become universal. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, in 2017, three-quarters of all homes in the United States had air conditioners. It is a vicious circle. Air conditioners are supposed to cool down space. However, more operating air conditioners means more greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere, which traps the heat in the atmosphere and heats up the Earth instead. As the climate grows hotter, stronger air conditioners are required to stay cool.
Besides cooling, air conditioners have actually additional negative impacts that you might not imagine. Staying in an air-conditioned room for too long is also harmful to one’s health. Since air conditioners circulate old air without pulling any fresh air from the outside into the mix, dirty filters can cause illness and discomfort. Low temperatures may also mess with body’s ability to handle heat or adapt to different temperatures; continuously blasting AC reduces humidity in the space and lead to an aggravation of respiratory issues such as sinus infections, bronchitis, and nosebleeds. More so, air conditioner requires vast amounts of electricity – for a typical room, air conditioners use 10-20 times as much electricity as a ceiling fan. They take up about 6% of the annual electricity consumption, which is enough to power the whole Africa for the entire year. Every year, 117 million metric tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere from air conditioner usage. More AC means more refrigerants that are potent greenhouse gases.
Wait a second, refrigerants in air conditioners? Yes, indeed. Refrigerants are used both in refrigerators and air conditioners to keep things cool at a certain temperature. Originally, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were used as the refrigerant. However, after discovering the chemicals in CFCs could damage the Earth’s ozone layer, countries gathered together and signed the Montreal Protocol in 1987, eliminating the use of CFCs. To replace CFCs, another chemical, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a group of man-made chemicals containing the elements carbon, hydrogen and fluorine were introduced. Originally, they were introduced as “environmentally friendly;” but it was later discovered that HFCs are potent greenhouse gases and contribute significantly to climate change. As a result, countries are phasing out the usage of HFCs no later than 2028. But the damage has been done – according to a study, the ozone hole has shrunk considerably since 2000 but the average global temperature has increased nearly 1.5 degrees Celsius. A question that we all should ask ourselves: are we able to make the sacrifice and cut out air conditioners immediately from our lives to protect the environment?
The answer is probably not. A recent study from the Berkeley National Laboratory indicated that the world is set to install some 700 million air conditioners by 2030 and 1.5 billion in 2050, due to the constantly increasing global temperature. However, have you ever imagined what life would be if there was a power outage in the middle of the summer and no air conditioning? In 2003, there was a widespread blackout in the Northeastern and Midwestern United States. While some power was restored in a couple of hours, others did not get their power back until two days or a few weeks later. The incident affected 45 million people in eight U.S. states. In a power outage situation, we lose the luxury of air conditioners. The U.S. Department of Energy has offered some tips to deal with such a circumstance, lower the cooling costs, as well as reduce harm to the environment. Installing window coverings that allow natural light in and prevent solar heat gain, insulating walls and cracks to prevent warm air from leaking into the home, replacing the filters regularly, and probably the most crucial, use a fan. Believe it or not, natural ventilation and fans around the house can achieve the same function as air conditioner, but only requires less than 10 times the energy consumption. It’s more than a win-win situation – you save some coins and save the earth, without sweating or making any effort!
An interesting discussion on why it seems that Americans use air conditioners much more frequently than Europeans was held on the website Quora. Most of the regions in Europe are actually farther north than the United States, meaning they do not receive uncomfortable amounts of summer heat as frequently. In addition, it is more common in Europe to see buildings that are over 100 years old, and retrofitting those with air conditioning can be considered a damage or a challenge, and the cost just can’t be justified. However, the constantly growing temperatures have affected places like France and Italy, hitting them hard with massive heat waves that result in deaths. An increase in air conditioning is just one issue the world will have to face as population and energy demand grows. Increasing energy demand will necessitate the need for dialog across all users- government, business, and people.
This year’s symposium Geography 2050 is about energy – “Powering Our Future Planet.” Panel discussions and speeches will be given on several topics, including how various climate adaptations will fundamentally reshape the future geography of energy. For more information about the symposium, please check out the website Geography 2050.