Giving the Cold Shoulder to Wasteful Air Conditioners

09/10/2015 10:07 am ET | Updated Sep 10, 2016

From Paris to Karachi, Seattle to Tokyo, 2015 has brought countries across the globe record-breaking temperatures. In addition to leading to wildfires, droughts, and thousands of premature deaths, it also has brought increasing demand for electricity to run air conditioning, leading to disruptive blackouts and reduced energy for other uses.

Currently one in five people on the planet lack access to electricity. To ensure affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all (UN Sustainable Development Goal 7) it is critical to expand renewables and other climate-friendly energy. The good news is that half of all new energy generated last year was from renewables.

It also is critical to improve energy efficiency and use the saved energy to provide for those without. Air conditioners provide a powerful opportunity. There are currently 900 million room air conditioners worldwide. As populations and incomes increase and as the world grows warmer, this number is projected to grow to 2.5 billion air conditioners by 2050. In hot climates like Saudi Arabia, air conditioning currently uses up to 70 percent of peak power. In India and China during the hot season, air conditioners use up to 50 percent of peak power. If manufacturers built only efficient units (which are currently available in some markets at prices comparable to the less-efficient models) the energy savings would be dramatic. These savings could then be shared with those without access to adequate energy.

A recent study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory calculates that by 2050 moving to efficient air conditioners could save an amount of electricity equivalent to up to 2,500 power plants (range 1,090-2,540 medium-sized 500 MW peak-load power plants). To put this into perspective, there are currently around 2,300 coal-fired power plants worldwide. By 2030, the energy savings in India would be up to 130 power plants, in China up to 600 power plants, in Indonesia up to 90 power plants, and in Brazil up to 70 power plants.

Saving this amount of electricity would avoid an estimated 25 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2030, 32.5 billion tonnes in 2040, and 40 billion tonnes in 2050, for a cumulative savings up to 97.5 billion tonnes of CO2. This also would reduce blackouts, lower the owner's cost of operating their air conditioners, and save energy to share with those currently without.

The Montreal Protocol could help launch a global energy-efficiency transition. Past phase outs of refrigerants under this treaty have catalyzed improvements in appliance-energy efficiency up to 50 percent or more. (Parallel efforts to set efficiency standards and to ban imports of inferior air conditioners could ensure that efficiency was improved even faster.)

Proposals are now being discussed to amend the Montreal Protocol to phase down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are currently the fastest growing greenhouse gases in much of the world and are used in many air conditioners. Proposals to phase-down HFCs have been submitted by 95 countries, including a coalition of Island States led by the Federates States of Micronesia and the Philippines, the Africa Group of 54 countries, the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, the EU-28, and India currently support an HFC amendment. China and Brazil and many other Parties also support the phase-down of HFCs.

An HFC phase-down under the Montreal Protocol would avoid the equivalent of 100 (87-146) billion tonnes of CO2 by mid-century, and up to 0.5°C of warming by the end of the century. If countries and companies were to leapfrog over HFCs into climate-friendly alternatives during the ongoing phase-out of H-CFCs under the Montreal Protocol, this would add an additional 50 (39-64) billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent, bringing total mitigation potential of an HFC amendment up to the equivalent of 200 billion tonnes of CO2 by 2050. Adding the potential gains from improving air-conditioning efficiency, the total would be the equivalent of up to 300 billion tonnes of CO2 by 2050.

The HFC amendment can make a substantial down payment on the mitigation needed to keep the climate safe, through a treaty that has already successfully phased down nearly 100 chemicals that both destroyed the ozone and warmed the climate. A parallel effort to maximize the energy savings can make a significant contribution to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 7.

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