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The Great American Indoors

Air conditioning is more American than apple pie

Despite America's near-universal appreciation for the outdoors, we actually spend over 90% of our time indoors. We are essentially "an indoor species," using technologies like air conditioning to keep us comfortable. [1]

 

It's been like this for decades.

In the 1920s, one of the first mainstream applications of air conditioning was cooling movie theaters to draw in crowds in the summer. [2]

100 years later, staring at a screen in an environmentally-controlled room has become the true American pastime.

See america

Air conditioning has given us summer blockbuster movies, the Florida retirement community, and the towering glass skyscraper. And air conditioning in homes is "now more common than dishwashers, garages, or dining rooms." [3]

 

The indoor lifestyle doesn't come cheap.

We use more energy in our buildings than anywhere else. 40% of the energy used in the United States is for buildings, whereas 29% of energy is used for transportation (e.g. for moving people and goods from one building to another). [4]

The average household spends at least $2,000 a year on energy bills — over half of which goes to heating and cooling. [5]

The unfortunate reality is that it would take five earths for everyone on the planet to live like an American. [6]

 

Who doesn't like to Netflix and Chill?

Despite concerns that this might raise, the fact remains: For an individual person, air conditioning is undeniably awesome. We love it. You probably do too.

 

That said, things aren't going well for the planet right now.

2017 was the hottest non-El Niño year on record, [7] and our use of air conditioning is part of the problem.

The U.S. withdrew from the Paris climate accord.

Major institutions are still trying to deny that climate change is a thing. Or they are choosing to stay quiet about the unsustainable rate at which we are consuming the earth's resources.

It's time to face the facts. We're consuming the Earth's resources at an unsustainable rate.


The adoption problem

In 1955, air conditioning was considered a luxury device. Only 2% of American residences had an AC. By the 1980s, air conditioners had become affordable enough that half of all residences had one.

Today, 60 years later, almost 90% of American residences have air conditioning. [8] Along the way, we’ve introduced affordable air conditioning to the rest of the world.

For example, in 2013 China’s AC sales were 8 times the total sold in the United States. [9] In only 15 years, urban China transitioned from “a few percentage points of air conditioning adoption" to more than 100%. This means that each household had more than one room air conditioner. [10]

When people can afford air conditioning, they buy it.

And who can blame them? An air-conditioned room feels amazing.

 

People in warm climates are getting wealthy enough to afford air conditioning.

The earliest countries to adopt air conditioning (U.S. and Japan) aren’t even relatively hot climates compared to many parts of the world.

Billions of people in developing countries with hot climates, growing populations, and rising incomes are poised to gain access to air conditioning this century. [11]

“By 2050, the global projected growth in air conditioning adoption alone will be the resource equivalence of adding several new countries to the world.”

- The Washington Post

In India, air conditioning adoption over the next 15 years is expected to double the country’s electricity demand, requiring 200-300 new power plants just to support space cooling. [12]

In the illustration below, the height of the buildings represents the total potential cooling demand in different countries. The pink air conditioners represent the current rate of air conditioner adoption in those countries.

 Cooling potential building

The height of the building is total cooling potential demand, which takes into account population density and climate variation across each country. [10] The number of windows with pink air conditioners in them reflects current air conditioning adoption relative to the United States, based on Air Conditioning Sales per Capita. [13]

This change will significantly improve their overall quality of life in the short term, and as history as shown, this transformation will happen as quickly as individual wealth allows.

But there are long-term global consequences.

 

The consequences of comfort

 

Beyond the unfathomable resources that will be required to scale air conditioning into the developing world, with almost 100 years of hindsight we now have a much better understanding of the impact of our existing solutions on the human body and our planet.

Unfortunately, what we’ve learned is more than discomforting. We've fallen into a self-perpetuating cycle, where the more AC we use, the more we need because our very use of it contributes to a warming planet.

 

The above illustration depicts the self-perpetuating cycle. The more air conditioning we use, the hotter the outside world becomes and the more we acclimate to comfortable indoor environments. This makes us spend even more time indoors than before, using even more air conditioning. On top of all of that, warm countries are becoming wealthier. This means that more and more people will able to afford air conditioning, thus accelerating the cycle.

 

Human beings acclimate to comfortable environments.

One of the consequences of our chill lifestyle is that we're training our bodies to adapt to indoor comfort. By spending more time inside air-conditioned spaces, hot outdoor spaces actually become even less comfortable than they were previously.

In an interview with Hui Zhang and Ed Arens, two researchers at the Center for the Built Environment at UC Berkeley, we asked about this adaptation effect.

"Air-conditioned spaces trick people into adapting to an expensive and artificial environment.”

- Hui Zhang & Ed Arens, UC Berkeley Researchers

While our predecessors survived for decades without air conditioning, the current generation is growing up in a world where air conditioning is the norm. We won't be able to live without it.

 

AC is great. But by using too much of it, we're damaging the climate.

Start putting the pieces together and you can begin to see why this situation demands action.

  1. We're spending more time indoors, which means we're using more air conditioning.
  2. The more air conditioning we use, the more greenhouse gases we emit to the outdoor world.
  3. This, in turn, makes the outside world hotter, which makes us spend even more time indoors than before.
  4. On top of all of that, the demand for air conditioning across the world is only increasing.

"Without action by the international community, the expected demand for A/C in developing countries in the coming decades will substantially increase global GHG emissions."

- Department of Energy (BTO Report, 2016)

It's clear that something needs to change.

 

Breaking the cycle

Everybody deserves to be comfortable. You should be able to eat dinner in your home or work at your office without overheating.

But we need to get smarter about it.

There isn't a simple answer. But we do know that the status quo is not an option.

Camilo Mora, a researcher at the University of Hawaii, reported that by 2100, almost 50% of Earth's population will be exposed to a deadly level of air temperature and humidity for at least 20 days a year.

"An increasing threat to human life from excess heat now seems almost inevitable."

- Camilo Mora

This will be accelerated even more if we don't change our current behavior and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

We know this is a complex issue. And it requires all of us doing our part.

If we stick to our current cycle, we'll have a lot more to feel uncomfortable about than just the room temperature.

 

If you learned something from this post and want to help spread the word, it would mean a lot if you shared it on Facebook using the button below.

 

Long before we started Embr Labs, we've been passionate about sustainability and trying to our part for the environment. We created Embr Wave with the hope that it could be a small part of the solution to this global problem. But we know so much more is needed.

That's why we're proud to support Greenforall.org, a non-profit organization advancing solutions that bring clean energy, green jobs, and opportunities to the poorest and most polluted communities in the country.


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[1] The National Human Activity Pattern Survey, 2001

[2] Cool Comfort: America's Romance with Air-Conditioning, 2010

[3] CityLab, 2013

[4] U.S. EIA

[5] EPA Archives

[6] Global Footprint Network Ecological Footprint Calculator

[7] The Guardian, 2018

[8] EIA Residential Energy Consumption Survey, 2015

[9] The Verge, 2015

[10] Department of Energy, Building Technology Office Report, 2016

[11] Forbes, 2016

[12] Boston Globe, 2017

[13] Current Air Conditioning Sales Rate Per Capita: IEA Energy Snapshot, World Energy Investment, 2017