In many parts of Australia, air conditioners have gone from being a luxury to what many consider a necessity.
It’s a trend that’s being echoed around the world as billions of people in hot counties lift themselves out of poverty.
But the explosion in demand for the energy-intensive appliance is alarming climate change experts, who say we’re heating the world up by cooling it down.
Victoria MacLean, who runs the Bureau of Meteorology’s weather station in Alice Springs, said the start of 2019 was unbearable, even by local standards.
“We had 11 days in a row recently of 40-degree-plus days. We had a 45.6 day. In fact we had another one like this as well and that did break the record for the Alice Springs airport,” said the meteorologist.
During the heatwave, Alice Springs had more days over 45 degrees Celsius in a single week than the town has recorded in the past 76 years.
Like most people in the desert community, Ms MacLean coped by running her air conditioner flat out.
“We closed off the downstairs side of the house and we actually stayed down there, we slept down there a few times, just to stay cool.
“We’ve got two dogs; we had to keep them inside because they just couldn’t handle it.”
But she does worry about the environmental impact of air conditioning.
“It’s kind of ironic that you’d been using the air conditioning, and we’ve got climate change going on, so we’re trying to conserve energy, but then you have to use more of it.”
Air conditioners’ environmental impact
Air conditioners are a double whammy in terms of climate change.
They’re the most energy-hungry appliance in the average home, which in Australia is mostly powered by fossil fuels, and the refrigerants inside air conditioners are potent greenhouse gases.
Experts say demand for air conditioning is increasing so fast internationally that it will have a real impact on the earth’s climate.
Laszlo Varro, chief economist for the International Energy Agency (IEA), told a recent conference of greenhouse gas scientists in Melbourne that Asia was experiencing an energy transformation unlike anything in history.
“The overwhelming majority of electricity-demand growth comes 10 years after you provide electricity to the village,” Mr Varro said.
“You provide electricity to the village and then the kids go to school. Then they work in a factory and they buy a refrigerator and a television.
“This is when electricity demand explodes and the most important household appliance in this respect is air conditioning.”
There are 3 billion people living in regions of the world where air conditioning is needed more than 300 days a year, and as the world’s climate warms, that number is getting bigger and bigger.
The IEA estimates there could be an extra 4 billion air conditioners around the world by mid-century, which alone could push up the world’s temperature by more than half a degree.
“We expect up to 4,000 terawatt hours, which is 10 times the Australian electricity system, [in] additional electricity demand, [which] can potentially emerge only from air conditioning,” Mr Varro said.
“And this is coming in parts of the world where today coal is the dominant source of power generation.”
Mr Varro said the investment wave into new coal capacity in Asia was so robust that about one-third of coal-fired power stations around the world were less than 10 years old.
“That’s not so bad for an industry that’s supposed to be dying.”
Global cooperation on air conditioners and climate change
On January 1, while Alice Springs endured its heat wave, an international treaty quietly came into effect to limit the impact of refrigeration and air conditioning on the world’s climate.
The Kigali Amendment follows the extraordinary success of the Montreal Protocol in banning ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs.
The new treaty commits signatories to phase down hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, the greenhouse gases found in almost all modern air conditioners.
In 2016, the former US Secretary of State John Kerry said Kigali was “likely the single most important step that we could take at this moment to limit the warming of our planet”.
Peter Brodribb, an internationally recognised expert in the environmental impacts of HFCs, said Australia played a key role in the negotiations.
“In fact the co-chair of the executive committee was an Australian, Patrick McInerney from the Department of the Environment. He was one of the main people that negotiated the agreement,” he said.
The Kigali Amendment commits developed countries to reduce production and importation of HFCs by 85 per cent by 2036 and 80 to 85 per cent in developing countries by 2047.
In October 2017, Australia became the 10th of 66 countries to ratify the Kigali Amendment, and began its HFC phase-down on January 1, 2018.
The United States is still to ratify the amendment.
Kigali aims to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 72 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide between 2019 and 2050: the equivalent of well over one year’s total global greenhouse gas emissions.
Mr Brodribb said Kigali meant more than just the banning of a group of potent greenhouse gases.
“By transitioning to new refrigerants, what this means is that companies have to do new designs, and with new designs they create products that are much more efficient,” he said.
“They consume less electricity and once again, that will contribute less to global warming.”