Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
U.S. households use more energy for A/C than the rest of the world combined. But that's changing, fast.
We love our air conditioning in the U.S. The amenity is more common in American homes – 87 percent of us have either central air or window units – than dishwashers, garages, or dining rooms. All told, U.S. households demand more energy for air conditioning than the rest of the world combined.
Part of this has to do with climate (it's simply inhumane to rent an apartment to anyone in Miami, Atlanta or Houston without providing central A/C). But the bulk of that statistic really has to do with wealth. Air conditioning is a luxury for economies that can afford it. And as the standard of living rises in developing countries, particularly those in some much hotter parts of the world, global demand for the kind of A/C Americans have long enjoyed will skyrocket.
That future entails a particularly frustrating catch-22: As millions more people in the world are able to artificially cool off for the first time (and who can blame them once they get the chance?), this particular niche of energy demand will increase dramatically, further contributing to climate change. And what will we do when the climate warms up? Crank up the A/C even more.
The University of Michigan's Michael Sivak, whose earlier A/C-themed research we've covered, has attempted to calculate what this future demand might look like, if air conditioning became as prevalent in other countries as it is in the U.S. today. Sivak's calculations, published in American Scientist, estimate country-by-country demand given both local climate and population size. If A/C were as popular and accessible throughout the world as it is in America, these 25 countries would represent the greatest demand:
Of particular note, only three of those countries (the U.S., Japan and Saudi Arabia) are considered developed countries by World Bank income limits. For those other 22 countries, Sivak writes, "the current cooling demand there is nowhere near the possible peak."
That graph suggests that eight countries have the potential to exceed American A/C energy demand, or what's currently the world's top consumer. Sivak looked at 170 countries for which data was available. The total demand for the 169 countries outside the U.S. could be 45 times greater than the home air-conditioning energy Americans require today. And that doesn't even take into account the few dozen countries that Sivak didn't look at.
These calculations are obviously based on a big assumption: that households in Myanmar and Malaysia will achieve American-like A/C ubiquity. By the time they do, it's possible that the world will have come up with some insanely efficient way of keeping people cool in summer, meaning that we'll need less energy a few decades from now to satisfy cooling demand in Thailand that's relatively comparable to the U.S today.
Viewed that way, the above graph also represents what could go wrong if we don't develop that technology (or new building design) in time.
Sivak concedes that he also didn't consider locally important variables like cloud cover, humidity, construction materials or interior space per person (one person in a large American home needs to cool a lot more space than one person in a small Indian apartment). Consider these calculations, he suggests, as "first approximations." As he concludes:
Nevertheless, it is clear that the global energy demand for air-conditioning will grow substantially as nations become more affluent, with the consequences of climate change potentially accelerating the demand. This trend will put additional strain not only on global energy resources but also on he environmental prospects of a warming planet.
Top image of a woman standing under an air-conditioner compressor in a Thailand apartment: Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters