The environmental price of ′staying cool′ | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 11.09.2014
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Asia

The environmental price of 'staying cool'

Asia's current air conditioner use is only a fraction of its potential. With increasing affluence and urbanization in the region, what will be the environmental effects when millions more machines start running?

With cooler weather beginning to sweep across Asia, some countries are breathing a bigger sigh of relief than usual. Parts of India, China and both North and South Korea all sweltered through higher than average temperatures during the 2014 summer, peaking at 48 degrees Celsius in the Indian capital New Delhi.

The dangerous temperatures meant that energy use also skyrocketed, as millions of citizens seeking respite from the heat turned on appliances such as air conditioners.

But research is showing that Asia's current usage of air conditioners is only a small proportion of what it could be. With continuously improving standards of living and urbanization, what will be the environmental impact when millions more machines are switched on?

For many decades, the United States has been the world's top user of air conditioners. Now Asia is catching up, with the region experiencing the fastest rate of population growth, and more of its citizens moving to already jam-packed cities. Figures on the global air conditioning market in 2013 show China and Japan already make up 82 percent of the Asia-Pacific segment.

A 2007 International Energy Agency report on air conditioners in developing countries predicted a dramatic rise in residential electricity consumption in Asian countries in the near future. It listed China as an example, citing the rate of adoption of air conditioners as having increased from 8 to 70 percent in less than a decade. Andrew DeWit, a professor of Economic Policy Studies at Japan's Rikkyo University, says China is likely to eclipse the United States' 87 percent ownership of the machines by 2020.

Klimaanlage in Asien

China is predicted to overtake the US in terms of air conditioner usage by 2020.

In a recently published article in the magazine American Scientist, University of Michigan's Dr Michael Sivak says the current cooling demand in Asia countries is "nowhere near the possible peak," as many Asians simply can't afford air conditioners at the present time. As the balance changes, and with the potential temperature changes caused by global warming, Sivak predicts habitual use of air conditioners will increase accordingly.

The cost of modern comfort

But this desire to feel cool indoors has led to many problems, including an added strain on power supplies, often in areas with already unstable or limited networks. India and China, featuring the largest, most densely-populated cities in the world, experience frequent power cuts and brownouts during peak energy demand periods. Sivak says that around 40 percent of energy in India's largest city Mumbai goes towards just trying to keep temperatures bearable in stuffy offices and high-rise apartment blocks.

And countries such as Vietnam are forced to import significant amounts of energy in order to keep up with domestic demand, as well as rely upon the use of polluting energy sources such as oil and gas.

At a more local level, Rikkyo University's Professor DeWit says "the most noticeable negative effect" from using air conditioners is the intensification of "heat islands." These are localized areas that are warmer than their surroundings, for example cities and other built-up regions.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency these places can be hotter by up to 3 degrees Celsius, making people living there more likely to feel the need to use appliances to cool down. Research published in the Journal of Geophysical Research shows that even after the sun goes down this residual heat doesn't dissipate, making our nights as well as our days hotter.

Even the manufacturing process for air conditioners requires extraordinary amounts of power and produces harmful greenhouse gases, says Professor DeWit. On top of this, the refrigerants used inside the conditioners can be ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), particularly in older machines.

In 1987 the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was introduced, as a way of phasing out these damaging chemicals. This led to manufacturers replacing CFCs with hydrofluorocarbons, which have no impact on the fragile ozone layer. However, they turned out not to be the cure-all originally thought, with studies revealing they are in fact a major contributor to global warming.

All this before they are even turned on.

Sivak says we are stuck in a cycle of self-destruction. "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."

The right solution?

Klimaanlage in Asien

Many older air conditioners still contain ozone-damaging chemicals.

But there is still hope that new technologies and innovations can help reduce the world's reliance on cooling appliances.

Sivak says he believes efficiency improvements between 20 and even 70 percent can be made in air conditioner models. The reasons why they haven't been made yet, he says, are simple: not enough time and money.

Elsewhere, inter-company collaborations are producing promising results, such as the recent three-year project between Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research and Japanese electronics giant Hitachi. Together they developed a combined heat and power plant, that converts waste heat into energy to then power air conditioning systems.

Governments are playing their part too.

Professor DeWit says although Japan had previously showed interest in environmental and ecologically-friendly initiatives, it redoubled its efforts in the wake of the 2011 tsunami disaster.

He says Japan began to show enthusiasm for previously discounted technologies, such as district heating and cooling systems which use chilled water to cool buildings. "I think the dominance of the big utilities and companies like Hitachi and Panasonic selling individual air conditioning units weakened after Fukushima and the destruction of the nuclear safety and low-cost myths."

But the desire to go green has not translated easily into real change.

Japan in particular has found the shift away from nuclear power difficult, with warnings of power shortages as existing infrastructure struggles to keep up with demand.

In April of this year, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office after the 2011 disaster, approved a plan to restart nuclear power reactors, as well as to build new plants. The move comes in the wake of a bad summer for the nation, with at least 15 people dying and thousands more hospitalized with heat-related conditions.

Japan Hitzewelle 11.07.2013

Relaxing dress codes has proved harder in some countries than in others.

Even culture plays a part in how people use air conditioning. The University of Sydney's Professor Richard de Dear says many workers' preference to wear suits no matter the external temperature means many offices are over-cooled.

"The current clothing behavior is costing us a fortune in energy and greenhouse emissions," he says. However, relaxing dress codes may prove difficult for some countries to adopt. Since 2005 the 'Cool Biz' campaign has been run by the Japanese government in an effort to encourage management to use air conditioners less, and allow employees to dress more casually. Reactions though, have been mixed.

Tokyo-based Professor DeWit thinks we already have the answers to solve our air conditioner woes - but we're too impatient. "Air conditioners keep getting increasingly efficient. But one problem is that global sales accelerate faster than the efficiency cuts, power demands and waste heat emissions into the immediate environment."

He hopes India may come up with a solution, as using air conditioning isn't as ingrained in their culture as it is already in many others. But it can't be all that long before everyone understands the price of keeping cool.