It’s gotten so hot in Qatar’s cities, partially thanks to climate change, that places like Doha are now using air conditioning in some outdoor areas. Qatar has already experienced the 2-degree Celsius rise in average temperatures the rest of the world is trying to avoid. During the summer, temperatures often easily exceed 100.
Personal outdoor AC units have become a common sight in cities like Phoenix, and it’s easy to imagine other cities picking up on Qatar’s idea. The problem: using air conditioning actually makes climate change worse.
David Abel, an honorary fellow at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, tells Inverse that there are two main ways air conditioning contributes to climate change.
“There are two components: One is the energy that is used to power the A/C,” Abel says. “The second component is that air conditioners use refrigerants that are really powerful greenhouse gases.”
Anyone who’s regularly used air conditioning during a hot summer knows that running the A/C uses a lot of electricity. Air conditioning can use around 5,000 watts of electricity in a day, which drives utility bills up considerably.
As more of the developing world starts using A/C, energy use worldwide could increase significantly. Research shows energy use from air conditioning alone will triple by 2050 if we stay on the current path. Renewable energy could alleviate the problem, but A/C stands to be a resource suck.
The other problem is the hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) used in A/C units. HFCs are organic compounds that contain hydrogen, fluorine, and carbon. After 1987, when an international agreement banned the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), air conditioning manufacturers turned to HFCs as a replacement. While HFCs don’t cause a whole in the ozone layer like their predecessors, they do great harm to the atmosphere if they’re released. This type of greenhouse gas is far worse for the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
“They’re much, much more potent than CO2,” Abel says. “About 1,000 to 9,000 times.”
Abel claims these gases typically escape when an A/C unit is being disposed of, but he said the gases can also leak out while the A/C unit is still being used. This is why the climate group Project Drawdown lists refrigerant management as a top priority when it comes to fighting climate change.
“The solution is two-fold: Get more efficient air conditioners and then power them with cleaner sources,” Abel says. “That addresses the energy component. The third piece would be addressing refrigerant management—proper disposal. Either you can reuse a refrigerant or it has to be stored somewhere so it’s not released into the atmosphere.”
We’re going to need A/C as the planet warms, but we need to reduce its carbon footprint significantly and make sure A/C units are being disposed of in the proper way to help fight climate change.