120 million new devices every year: Air conditioners are a terrible lifesaver


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Over 40 degrees in India, China or Thailand and Vietnam – people in parts of Asia are groaning under enormous heat waves. Air conditioners are becoming a bestseller, especially in emerging markets. This drives up electricity consumption and continues to heat up the world. Can you escape this vicious circle?

Asia is under a heat dome. In China are measured in several parts of the country over 40 degrees, it is much too hot for mid-June. In Beijing, the thermometer shows 39.4 degrees, the previous record was 39.1 degrees in 2000 for mid-June.

Temperatures of 40 degrees or more have also been measured in India for weeks. The average values ​​are sometimes around five degrees above the normal mean values. At a major event in mid-April in the blazing sun, at least 11 people died of heat stroke and around 50 others had to go to the hospital. Heat records are also being set in neighboring Bangladesh and northern Thailand.

The longing for cooling off is great. If you can afford it, get an air conditioner. 120 to 130 million devices are sold every year, says Daniel de Graaf, research associate at the Federal Environment Agency in im ntv podcast “Learned something again”. The most important market is China with 50 million systems sold, followed by the USA with 25 million, “dthen come various other regions of the world. They are between 7 and 10 million devices sold in 2021.” These include Europe, India, Japan, Latin America and the Middle East.

Three times more air conditioners than in 2015

With an increase of almost 23 percent compared to the previous year, India is the largest growth market, explains de Graaf. So far only around 20 percent of the 1.4 billion Indians have air conditioning, but that will change with increasing income, a growing population and a growing middle class.

The demand for air conditioning systems is increasing in particular in the emerging countries, in addition to India also in Indonesia and the Philippines. More than a billion additional air conditioners are expected to be sold by 2029, expects the business magazine Bloomberg. “There are long-term forecasts up to the year 2050, which assume that the stock will roughly triple compared to 2015, due to the warming climate and because more and more people, especially in emerging countries, can afford room air conditioners,” says expert de Graaf out.

Dirty stream caused CO2 emissions

The countries where demand for air conditioning is growing the fastest rely heavily on dirty coal power. More and more coal-fired power plants are being built in China. According to Greenpeace, from January to March this year, power plants with a capacity of at least 20.45 gigawatts approved. That is more than the output of all the new power plants that were allowed last year.

In China, almost 60 percent of the electricity demand in 2022 was generated with coal. In India, even 70 percent of the electricity is generated from coal and new power plants are also being built to cover the energy demand.

This threatens to worsen the climate crisis. Although air conditioners work in a similar way to a refrigerator, they consume a lot more electricity and therefore contribute to the emission of greenhouse gases. This drives global warming. In addition, they continue to heat up the world with their exhaust air.

When everyone turns on their air conditioners, it also overloads the power grids. In hot southern China, power consumption skyrocketed at the end of May. The power grid operators recorded peak loads. Last summer, the Chinese authorities even had to reduce power consumption because of the heat, because air conditioning and fans were running at full speed. Vietnam also repeatedly switches off the electricity due to heat shortages.

Refrigerants poison the environment through leaks

In addition, air conditioning systems are operated with toxic refrigerants. These could escape from the systems due to damaged lines or improper processing, explains de Graaf in the podcast. The loss from these leaks amounts to one to three percent per year. “Meanwhile, it’s essentially coming hydrofluorocarbon R32 to apply. This agent has a very high global warming potential compared to CO2. The Global Warming Potential (GWP) of CO2 is 1 and R32 has a GWP of 750.”

Die partially fluorinated hydrocarbons, HFC for short, are in the EU for about 2.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions responsible. Therefore they should be banished one by one. That could reduce global warming by 0.3 to 0.5 degrees by the end of the century, by 2100, UN experts say. Nevertheless, these refrigerants can still be found in most air conditioning systems.

HFCs were used as an alternative to ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons – CFCs – for some time after they were banned in the late 1980s.

Propane air conditioners common in India

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There have long been climate-neutral alternatives. There are no environmentally friendly air conditioning systems, just as there are no environmentally friendly cars, emphasizes Daniel de Graaf in the “Learned again” podcast. However, air conditioners are available that have little impact on the environment “at least as far as the refrigerant is concerned and in connection with high efficiency”. One possibility is Propane, a natural refrigerant, which is also used for camping stoves or for heating. Propane has a comparatively low GWP of three.

The Federal Environment Agency expert calculates that India and China are pioneers in air conditioning systems with propane as a refrigerant, with around two million such devices installed there. The problem: If you have an air conditioner, you can’t just convert it and fill it with propane. De Graaf emphasizes that they are no more expensive to buy than conventional systems. “And for at least a while, these propane units were also the most energy efficient on the Indian market.”

Air conditioners as lifesavers

Air conditioners are bad for the environment. They lead to greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, peak electricity demand and the urban heat island effect. But they also save lives, one says Report of the research collaboration “The Lancet Countdown”: In 2019, they prevented an estimated 195,000 heat-related deaths among those aged 65 and over.

Productivity also decreases with rising temperatures. have in india researcher examined thousands of factories with different cooling methods and found that workers are more – 2 percent less productive with every degree Celsius. According to one, 80 million jobs will be lost worldwide by 2030 due to heat Study of the International Labor Organization.

Functioning cooling is becoming more and more important. Especially because heat waves will be longer, hotter and more frequent in the future.

Blinds, mud houses, plastic bottles

This does not always require the latest technology. Fans, for example, use a fraction of the electricity used by air conditioners. Expert de Graaf also recommends sun protection films or roller blinds and airing when it’s not that hot outside. “Only when everything fails would I resort to air conditioning.”

Cities suffer more from heat stress than the surrounding areas and heat up more. “I can deal with that by greening the city, with large trees that provide shade, greenery along the streets and green facades.”

Alternative cooling methods are urgently needed, especially in poor and very hot countries. A project from Bangladesh gives hope: A homemade air conditioner from old plastic bottles and without electricity helps to lower the temperature in houses by five degrees.

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