Air conditioning: Cold comfort

Air conditioning has become essential in some societies and a status symbol in others. It has made it possible for us to live almost anywhere in the world, but its effects on the environment are chilling, says Rob Sharp

Tuesday 03 August 2010 00:00 BST

In 1992, Cambridge University anthropologist Gwyn Prins wrote the paper "On Condis and Coolth" in the academic journal Energy and Buildings, slamming air conditioning addicts. He labelled them "condis", and their preferred refrigerated climate, "coolth", arguing AC was the ultimate example of needless luxury in an already gluttonous society. In an elegant, influential tirade, Prins warned of worsening "global warming", a term so rarely used at the time that it still warranted inverted commas.

His target, the US population, ignored his diatribe. Now, air conditioning guzzles 15 per cent of total American energy consumption, higher than any other country, using the same amount of fossil fuel as the whole of Africa employs for all its energy needs. Global air-conditioning demands cannot be quantified, but this summer's high temperatures have prompted a surge in air con sales in China, for example. While British air conditioning is less of a societal "must-have", according to the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE), its use is set to swell here by 50 per cent over the next 20 years.

"Air conditioning's environmental damage is not limited to emissions of greenhouse gases and ozone-depleting chemicals," says writer Stan Cox, whose book Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World is generating a buzz in America. "Lavish deployment of indoor climate control may indeed make it possible for us to live anywhere on the planet, but is that wise?" Indeed, from the sun-scorched deserts of Dubai to the sands of Arizona (the "air conditioning capital of the world"), inappropriately designed and located construction requires yet more refrigeration. Artificial cooling links arms with global warming – the higher the temperatures, the more cooling we need – in a chilling positive-feedback hoedown.

Air conditioning might not seem like the most scintillating of subjects. "I considered it a challenge," continues Cox. "It's a subject which people haven't thought about for a long time. When you look at the technologies that have changed our world over 50 years, like cars, and computers, and TV, we have debated their costs and benefits. But air conditioning has been humming in the background the whole time."

Man-made climate control can be traced back to the second century, when Chinese inventor Ding Huan conceived of a manually-powered rotary fan. Medieval Persians employed wind towers to cool buildings but it wasn't until the 18th century, when Benjamin Franklin and John Hadley linked evaporation to tempered surfaces, that modern air con methods were first vented. The first electrical air-conditioning unit was produced by Willis Haviland Carrier in Buffalo, New York in 1902; the growth of later models mirrored the economic development of southern US states and it took off around the world (capitalism, particularly in manufacturing, has heeded studies linking high productivity to low temperature). People have migrated from the outdoors into their condos, jeeps and offices so that nowadays in China and the US, the two biggest producers of greenhouse gas, AC is ubiquitous in offices, homes and cars. In America, it is used predominately in houses, swallowing a whopping 261 billion kWh annually, several tonnes of carbon dioxide per head of the population each year. Britain cools mainly in a business context (making up just 1 per cent of our annual carbon dioxide emissions). In Europe, air conditioning in vehicles is exhibiting the biggest growth, over the last 10 years going from close to zero to a 95 per cent prevalence.

In the societies of the developing world, air conditioning confers status. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of Chinese households owning air conditioning units tripled. Cox cites a publicist for the Korean company LG Electronics, the world's largest manufacturer of AC units, as saying: "I see AC sales competing with colour TVs as temperatures are going to be a lot worse and pollution in India is on the rise."

By 2020, air conditioning consumption in India will be 10 times its 2005 level. "When a family in India begins to have an increased income the first thing they get is a mobile phone," says Cox. "Even people on relatively low incomes can afford that. Then, they will buy a fridge. Soon afterwards, they may buy an air-conditioning unit for their bedroom before getting them fitted in the rest of the house."

Tourism also takes its toll. In Dubai, long-famed for its energy excess, the Emirates-based developer of the new Palazzo Versace hotel, Emirates Sunland Group, announced in 2008 that the attraction would have the world's first air-conditioned beach. Coolant pipes will circulate through the sand, with a plan to "install giant blowers to waft a gentle breeze over the beach." A refrigerated swimming pool will attract sun-worshippers to a city boasting the world's largest per capita carbon footprint. Meanwhile, Ski Dubai, the first indoor ski resort in the Middle East, must cost its owners a king's ransom in electricity to keep its snow from melting. In Denpasar, Bali, The Jakarta Post reported last year proposals for a canine "hotel" featuring 32 air-conditioned units with their own beds.

This wastefulness, spiralling beyond lunacy, can be curbed by improving upon antiquated engineering diktats. "The air conditioning industry uses an equation developed in the 1960s," says Fergus Nicol, deputy director of the low energy architecture research unit at London Metropolitan University. "It allows engineers to calculate the required temperature for air conditioning by inputting data concerning the size of a building, what clothes the engineers expect people to be wearing, and so on. But we've done research by asking people inside buildings what they feel. And what we've found is, people generally adapt to the conditions they are put in without the need for cooling. They can change what they are wearing, for example. It might sound obvious, but it is not factored into engineers' thinking." We can cope by wearing less, or sweating more. Smelly colleagues are not ideal; but our abhorrence of odour is a cultural conditioning. As Prins wrote almost 20 years ago: "The body is thoughtfully equipped with its own rather efficient cooling mechanism." Nicol also blames modern architectural trends for glazed buildings in warm climates; "beautiful envelopes" with little regard for convection, conduction and condensation.

So what's the solution? Cox sees it everywhere from minimising the heating effects of lightbulbs, clamping down on wasteful central air conditioning systems, using vegetative roofs, even employing incentives through energy companies. "By becoming more than anonymous Xs and Ys in a set of heat-load calculations, we can become more resilient human beings," he writes. "And we'll need that resilience."

The author acknowledges his debt to Prins, a man who once compared the Western world's AC addiction to drug users' crack cravings. "Once one's body has become addicted to air-conditioned air, one has extended one's range of basic, physiological human needs beyond food, shelter and warmth to an acquired need: Coolth," Prins wrote. His rhetoric holds fast. If going cold – or indeed warm – turkey is impossible, we should seek out alternatives, because cold temperatures are not a right, they are an indulgence. The reign of "coolth" must end. Glowing armpits are the least of our planet's worries.

Stay cool without air con

Generate a breeze

Your body generates the same amount of heat as a strong lightbulb; a fan can help you rid yourself of that warmth. Buy a portable one to turn on at night, replacing warm air that has accumulated inside with fresh alternatives.

Unplug appliances

Everything which runs on electricity generates heat. Turn off lights; take tepid or cold showers, use a clothes line to dry washing.

Exploit your basement

Cave men lived there for a reason: retreating deep underground is often a cool experience. If it gets too humid, air-condition one room as a retreat, rather than your entire house or office.

Get wet

If there is no lake or swimming pool nearby, set up a sprinkler in the garden (use with moderation). If water is scarce, use an evaporative cooler – a kind of fan that creates mist – instead of conventional air-conditioning.

Make shade

Vegetation has a dual cooling effect: shade and evaporation. Trees are the best for your garden, then sunflowers, or even corn, if it'll grow alongside the side of your house. If in doubt, get out the gazebo.

Cool down at work

Often, over-cooling can be a problem in an air-conditioned office during the summer. Take a stand against your maintenance men, instead of bracing yourself against the heat with sweaters and long trousers. It'll save energy.

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