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Elevated temperatures will change the use of air conditioning – but not as you expect


An Indian migrant worker sleeps daily next to an air cooler under a mosquito net on a steel box, which is used for night storage in New Delhi.

An Indian migrant worker sleeps daily next to an air cooler under a mosquito net on a steel box, which is used for night storage in New Delhi.
Photography: Altaf Qadri (AP))

After a summer of deadly heat, the the future of air conditioning in a world marked by rising temperatures it has come sharply into focus. Although some research has shown that we could “Basically we cook ourselves” if the world collectively turns on the air conditioner in conditions of extreme heat, a new study shows that the reality could be a little different. In a way, the findings are even more troubling.

U study released Wednesday in Nature, a team of researchers from the Climate Impact Lab, a collaboration between climate economists from different institutions, decided to determine how much energy consumption in households has increased and will increase due to climate change. The findings show large inequalities in the future use of energy for heating and cooling. They found that the world’s richest people will benefit from heating savings during the winter, while the rest of the world will struggle without access to air conditioning during the hot summers. Meanwhile, middle-income countries could see a spiraling load of energy as they struggle to cope with the extreme heat.

To calculate how energy consumption will change, the researchers first collected 40 data on energy use from 146 countries, as well as data on historical weather trends, and then measured how energy consumption in different areas changes with extreme temperatures. This holistic approach offers a rare insight into the true energy consumption of heating and cooling around the world.

“In previous work, researchers have often extrapolated what will happen in poorer regions by looking at research from richer regions,” wrote Amir Jina, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Chicago and co-author of the study. “So, for example, we would take information about how temperature affects the use of alternating current in the very rich US and apply it to a much less affluent India. This could overestimate the cost of energy-related climate change, as you assume that every Indian household would just turn on its air conditioner when it gets hot and consume a huge amount of energy. But we know that most households in India do not have an AC unit, so if you do not include data on India or other less affluent places, you will get the wrong answer. ”

A bird’s eye view shows that in affluent locations, wealthier people — especially those in the top 10% — turn on their air conditioners, increasing electricity consumption per person. But there is a relatively small corresponding increase in individual energy consumption in poorer areas even with an increase in temperature.

The researchers then divided the world into more than 24,000 different regions, based on existing administrative divisions or groups of administrative divisions within the country’s borders, such as U.S. counties. They then made projections of energy consumption in the future, using different emissions and economic scenarios to project these impacts.

By the end of the century, areas in India, Indonesia and Mexico – which now do not have high air conditioning use – will consume dramatically more cooling electricity as they devise how to deal with rising temperatures. Energy consumption in India alone is expected to increase by almost 145%. The dramatic increase in electricity consumption in these countries is not just the result of increasing heat; they are also among the countries where economic growth will make air conditioning more affordable for the majority of the population. Other countries will largely experience an increase caused by climate change, including a staggering increase in electricity consumption in Nigeria of 2,086%. Wealthy countries like the US will also see an increase in electricity consumption for refrigeration, but this will be relatively modest in percentage to just 3% given the already high penetration of refrigeration technologies.

Research also shows that fewer colder days mean the world will use less fuel for heating, so much so that it will offset changes in electricity demand. The study is part of the Climate Impact Laboratory’s efforts to determine how climate change will affect economies and lives locally around the world, to more accurately estimate the social costs of carbon (or SCC in economists) – the economic cost of emitting one tonne of coal -Dioxide into the atmosphere today, a metric used around the world.

The findings show that part of the SCC is related only to heating and cooling in negative, somewhere in the range of -3 to -1 USD. This means that purely economically on a global level for heating and cooling, rising temperatures are fine. But Fine Global for heating and cooling are not the metrics that really matter here. The study shows that the biggest savings will be in the richest countries, which are mostly far from the tropics. These countries will use less energy for heating as winters heat up. Poor countries – most of which are in the tropics – will have to figure out how to do it deal with more heat and more online cooling requirements.

“The economic impact of warming on global energy consumption is modest,” Jina said. “Despite this small net effect, inequality around the world is huge – we see places that benefit because they don’t have to spend so much on heating but don’t heat up enough to need a lot of air conditioning, places to warm up but rich enough to be afford air conditioning, and places that get really hot but just don’t get rich enough, even by the end of the century, to have wide access to cooling technologies. We see time and time again that this marked inequality is a characteristic of climate change. ”

This raises a huge range of questions about equity and access to energy around the world, both now and in the future. Countries like India, with an projected 145% increase in energy, will have to figure out how to adapt their electrical system to a warmer world. These countries – and the most vulnerable populations who call them homes – have played relatively little or no role in triggering the climate crisis.

SCC is much more than what is displayed on your electricity bill every month. Previous research, including some of the climate impact labs, shows that the damage caused by the climate crisis will be great. A small shift in the energy SCC will be mitigated by the loss of life due to high heat, infrastructure destroyed by rising seas, and more.

“There’s a huge difference in space and climate in the way people influence,” Jina said. “If we care at all about this inequality in impacts, we need to have as much information as possible about differences between populations.”



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Naveen Kumar

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