A Luxury the World Can’t Afford
by Stan Cox author of “Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer).” JUNE 21, 2012 NYT Opinion Pages
The economist Thorstein Veblen once quipped that “invention is the mother of necessity.” That was before the age of air-conditioning, but no technology better illustrates Veblen’s point. Having developed efficient cooling, we’ve designed homes, businesses and transportation systems that are completely dependent on it, while the resulting greenhouse emissions create the need for even more air-conditioning.
There’s little we can say to the developing world about its pursuit of air-conditioning
until we end our own society’s dependence on it.
Cooling of America’s buildings and vehicles has the annual global-warming impact of almost half a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. (Three-fourths of that is attributable to fossil fuels, the rest to refrigerants.) We consume more energy for residential air-conditioning than do all other countries combined, but that’s about to change. Home-cooling demand worldwide is projected to increase tenfold before 2050, stimulated by rising incomes and rising temperatures in already-warm regions. Such staggering growth will swamp out efficiency gains, outstrip renewable energy and accelerate warming.
We must break this feedback loop, but what does one say to someone living in one of the tropical nations where much of the increase in cooling demand is expected? Surely not that Americans are addicted to air-conditioning and can’t give it up, but we expect Southeast Asians to get by without air-conditioners because they’re used to the heat.
No, there’s little we can say until we end our own society’s dependence on lavish cooling. Doing that would be a good start, but addressing energy-hungry technologies one at a time won’t achieve the greenhouse-gas cuts of as much as 80 percent that science says are necessary to prevent catastrophic warming. Only a per-person ceiling on overall emissions can accomplish that.
A global greenhouse ration would push us into distinguishing between absolute necessities like food or water and manufactured necessities like a houseful of refrigerated air. And making such decisions could help us recover some of the resilience our own culture has lost in the age of air-conditioning.
(Use of A/C makes the planet hotter, which increases the need for A/C, which makes the planet even hotter. Time to stop the rat race, the cause of the “need” for A/C.
The NYT also had an interesting front page article on the new demand for AC in India. JL)