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Over two billion people 'on the brink' of needing one home appliance — and it could start a vicious cycle

"One of the top drivers of global electricity demand" within the next three decades.

"One of the top drivers of global electricity demand" within the next three decades.

Photo Credit: iStock

As global temperatures climb, more and more of us need air conditioning to cope with extreme heat. But how can we stay cool without cranking up our planet's thermostat even further?

What's happening?

Sales of affordable air conditioning units are exploding worldwide, Bloomberg reported in May. Around 10 air conditioners are sold every second — that's over 315 million units per year — a trend that could continue through 2050 and beyond.

A report by the research group Sustainable Energy for All found that 2.4 billion middle-class people are "on the brink" of buying an AC unit, per Bloomberg.

Countries such as China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, and many more are installing AC at unprecedented rates in homes, offices, malls, and more. In a special report, the International Energy Agency said cooling will be "one of the top drivers of global electricity demand" within the next three decades.

Why are air conditioning sales concerning?

The spike in AC demand could create a self-perpetuating cycle: The need for more interior cooling leads to more pollution from increased energy use, which leads to rising global temperatures, which leads to even higher cooling demand.

Specifically, all these new air conditioners will require massive amounts of electricity far beyond what space cooling — fans, dehumidifiers, and air conditioners — can provide today.

According to a recent estimate, space cooling uses 2,000 terawatt hours of electricity annually, around 10% of the global total, per the IEA. This is estimated to grow to 6,200 TWh by 2050.

Space cooling is also slated to dethrone appliances for other uses as the largest electricity user in buildings globally, also by 2050.

To meet the demand, countries would need to build expensive new power plants and infrastructure, likely powered by polluting dirty energy sources that emit heat-trapping gases. The IEA estimates that if AC efficiency doesn't improve, the electricity required by 2050 would exceed the current total energy generation capacity of the United States, Europe, and India combined.

Staying cool today shouldn't mean overheating the planet for generations to come. While it may sound like an AC is making things cooler, air conditioners simply move heat around, rather than remove heat from the world.

How can I help?

If you need AC to cope with extreme heat where you live, invest in the most efficient, energy-saving unit you can afford, possibly a heat pump. Even small tweaks such as keeping your thermostat just 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in warmer months can lead to energy savings over time.

Beyond your home, you can help expedite the clean power transition by supporting renewable energy initiatives in your community. Make your voice heard at town halls and elections by prioritizing wind, solar, and other renewables over coal, oil, and gas.

Businesses also have an immense opportunity to make progress by upgrading offices to efficient electric HVAC systems powered by renewable energy. Governments can offer incentives to make these retrofits affordable.

Through solutions big and small, staying cool doesn't have to mean turning up the heat. Together, we can build a future that keeps every community livable for generations to come.

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