Chandan Kumar shifted from Delhi to Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, with his family. The Namkum area of ​​Ranchi where Kumar lives is green and quiet, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. But the scorching heat that prevailed for a few days in Ranchi in April this year, forced him to install an air conditioner in his apartment. “Although the weather of Ranchi is usually much more pleasant than Delhi, after the heat wave in April, I got the AC installed,” said Kumar who wasn’t keen on installing it at first.

Another resident of Ranchi, Gopal, speaking to Mongabay-India, says, “Until a few years ago, the temperature in Ranchi was within tolerable limits. But now it is becoming difficult to bear the heat. Many times, one cannot even sleep at night due to the severe heat. Finally, I also had to get an AC installed this year.”

In the last four days of May, the maximum temperature of Ranchi remained above 42 degrees celsius, which was five degrees above normal. During this period, the registered temperature at Daltonganj, the headquarters of Palamu division and Palamu district, was 47 degrees celsius or more. Local newspapers reported that 27 people died across the state due to the heat wave that struck in the last week of May.

In April, the maximum temperature in Ranchi was above normal on 21 out of 30 days. The temperature increased from normal by about 0.5 degrees to 3.4 degrees Celsius. On April 30, the temperature crossed 40 degrees Celsius.

With the increasing heat, the AC market in India is steadily growing at an annual growth rate of around 15% estimated to be till 2028. The number of people getting ACs installed in their homes for the first time has increased this year. According to B Thiagarajan, managing director of the AC manufacturing company Blue Star, 95% of those who installed ACs this year are first-time buyers. Of these, 65% live in Tier III, IV and V cities.

According to reports, the sales of ACs doubled in May. The demand was so high that big manufacturers faced difficulties in keeping track of installation and inventory. Due to the increased demand, sales are expected to increase by 30%-35% this year as compared to the last year.

Abhishek Verma, business head (air conditioner group), Panasonic India, highlights that only about 7% of homes in India currently have ACs. However, factors such as increasing disposable income, increasing pace of urbanisation and better technology are fuelling the demand.

This year, the growth rate of the AC market is expected to be 30%-40%. Experts say that the sales of AC have witnessed a huge jump for the first time after 2011. India’s AC market is the fastest growing in the world. In fact, the demand is not restricted only to the summer season. It is estimated that between 2040 and 2050, India will overtake China in terms of AC sales.

Air conditioner on a window. Credit: Muneeb Babar via Pexels.

Rising demand for ACs

Rise in temperatures is one of the factors influencing the increase in demand for ACs. Many parts of India are now experiencing unbearable heat between the months of April and June. In the southern states, it starts as early as March.

Many of the cities with high temperatures have been medium and small cities. For example, on May 9, the hottest cities of India included Phalodi in Rajasthan, which has a population of less than 50,000, Jhansi in Western Uttar Pradesh, Shivpuri in Madhya Pradesh, Surendranagar in Gujarat, Malegaon in Central Maharashtra and Nizamabad in Telangana, all medium and small cities. The temperature of all these cities that day ranged between 41.9 degrees celsius and 46.2 degrees celsius.

On April 27, Kalaikunda in West Bengal recorded a temperature of 45.8 degrees Celsius. The other hot cities included Nandyal in Andhra Pradesh, Angul in Odisha, Asansol in West Bengal and Bhubaneswar in Odisha. The temperature was above 40 degrees in 112 cities across the country that day.

Mongabay-India spoke to Shabbir, the director of Bharat Refrigeration, to understand the reason behind the growth of the AC market in growing cities. He says, “We sell around 500 units a year. Ten years ago, this figure was only 150-200. He reveals that previously people used to install very basic ACs, and even these were installed by people with high incomes. Now, even the middle class is buying ACs and there is no longer any need to market these products. He says that ACs have now become a necessity and those who can afford it are buying it.

Abhishek Jalan, the owner of Jalan Electronics in Ranchi, says that the duration for which the heat waves are lasting is a main reason for the increase in AC demand. He shares, “If you want to buy a powerful air cooler, it costs Rs 15,000-Rs 20,000. So, people think by investing Rs 10,000-Rs 12,000 more, they will get an AC with better cooling. The families who used to buy air coolers from us five years ago, are now buying ACs.”

According to the International Energy Agency report released last year, AC coverage in India has tripled compared to 2010. Presently, this number is 24 units for every 100 houses. Because of this, the demand for electricity to cool homes increased by 21% between 2019 and 2022. The AC usage is expected to increase nine times by 2050 and subsequently, electricity consumption will also go up.

The heat wave in May this year, also resulted in the increased demand for electricity as well. Electricity consumption in May increased by 15% to 156.31 billion units as compared to the same month last year. The reason for this is believed to be the increased use of AC ​​and other cooling appliances. On May 30, the demand for electricity reached a record of more than 250 GW. It is believed that the peak demand for electricity this summer may reach 260 GW.

An increase of one degree in the average temperature of 24 degrees Celsius in May and June increases the demand for electricity by 2%, states the International Energy Agency. Between 2019 and 2023, the average electricity consumption increased by 28% when the temperature in June was more than 32 degrees Celsius. Today, 10% of the electricity demand in India is for cooling homes or office spaces.

However, not everyone has the access or means to afford an air conditioner. IEA’s report says, “Many people in India have to step out for work no matter how hot and humid it gets in the afternoon and for them, AC is a luxury. “Almost half of India’s labour force is employed in sectors like farming, mining and construction, where it is difficult to escape the heat.”

Air conditioners in a society in Ranchi. Credit: Vishal Kumar Jain for Mongabay.

Changes in weather

The World Meteorological Organization announced that 2023 was the hottest year ever. It is feared that this record will be broken in the current year due to El Nino.

The India Meteorological Department had also predicted that the maximum and minimum temperatures in most parts of the country would be above normal in May. It had also predicted that the temperature in April-June would be above normal. While the average maximum temperature in the country in March was close to normal, the minimum temperature was about half a degree above normal.

Another report released by the World Meteorological Organization in April, on Asia’s climate, notes, “Long-term climate warming trends have accelerated,” it said. “Asia is warming faster than the world average. The warming trend has doubled over the 1961-1990 period.”

The India Meteorological Department’s report on heat waves last year stated that between 1961 and 2020, most of the stations showed an increasing trend of heat waves between March and June. The total duration of heat waves in heat wave areas of India has increased by about three days in the last 30 years.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change model projections show that by 2060, the duration of heat waves will increase to 12-18 days from about two to eight days currently. The frequency of heat waves will also more than double by the end of this century in most areas of India, except the Himalayas and the northeastern hills. The duration of the heat wave is also expected to increase by 8-12 days in most parts of the country.

Laxman Rathore, the former Director General of India Meteorological Department, informs Mongabay-India that the temperature has been continuously increasing across the world since 1999. “The temperature from air to sea is also continuously increasing. Due to this, uncertainty in the weather has also increased along with the heat waves. The Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea are in a state of continuous heat wave.” He adds that glaciers are melting in the Himalayas too and hence the increasing temperature is showing its effect there too.

Idea temperature for human body

Dr Atri Gangopadhyay, a pulmonologist at Pulse Hospital in Ranchi, tells Mongabay-India that the ideal room temperature depends on where one is located. If you are inside a room, 27 degrees Celsius is ideal. The ideal average temperature of the human body is between 35 and 37 degrees. If this temperature goes up to 42 degrees, it can be fatal. When the mercury goes above this, it impacts the human body.

Dr. Shakeel, a consultant physician in Patna and All India General Secretary of Indian Doctors for Peace and Development, informs that a temperature of more than 40 degrees is harmful to the human body. Senior citizens or young children can suffer from heat stroke or dehydration. He says, “The biggest side effect of a heat wave is that it causes deficiency of water and salt in the body. In the case of the elderly, the veins in the brain may get dilated and this can lead to brain haemorrhage.”

“The protein inside our body remains safe in low temperatures. The arrangement or coordination of the chemicals present in proteins is important. This arrangement works properly in normal temperature or cold, but in heat, this arrangement gets impacted,” says Gangopadhyay. He adds that one can tolerate extreme cold, but it is not possible to tolerate extreme heat. “In such a situation, apart from the problems related to heat waves, the function of protein gets impaired, and the body starts getting dehydrated.”

This article was first published on Mongabay.