overheated earth

The global impact of air conditioning: Big and getting bigger

As incomes rise around the world and global temperatures go up, the use of air conditioning is poised to increase dramatically.

With a heat wave pushing the heat index well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) through much of the US, most of us are happy to stay indoors and crank the air conditioning. And if you think it’s hot here, try 124°F in India. Globally, 2016 is poised to be another record-breaking year for average temperatures. This means more air conditioning. Much more.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Paul Gertler and I examine the enormous global potential for air conditioning. As incomes rise around the world and global temperatures go up, people are buying air conditioners at alarming rates. In China, for example, sales of air conditioners have nearly doubled over the last five years. Each year now more than 60 million air conditioners are sold in China, more than eight times as many as are sold annually in the United States.

NOAA Forecast Daily Maximum Heat Index
NOAA Forecast Daily Maximum Heat Index

This is mostly great news. People are getting richer, and air conditioning brings great relief on hot and humid days. However, air conditioning also uses vast amounts of electricity. A typical room air conditioner, for example, uses 10-20 times as much electricity as a ceiling fan.

Meeting this increased demand for electricity will require billions of dollars of infrastructure investments and result in billions of tons of increased carbon dioxide emissions. A new study by Lawrence Berkeley Lab also points out that more ACs means more refrigerants that are potent greenhouse gases.

Evidence from Mexico

To get an idea of the global impact of higher air conditioner use, we looked at Mexico, a country with highly varied climate ranging from hot and humid tropical to arid deserts to high-altitude plateaus. Average year-round temperatures range from the high 50’s Fahrenheit in the high-altitude plateaus to low 80’s in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Davis and Gertler, PNAS, 2015. Copyright 2015 National Academy of Sciences, USA.
Davis and Gertler, PNAS, 2015. Copyright 2015 National Academy of Sciences, USA.

Patterns of air conditioning vary widely across Mexico. There is little air conditioning in cool areas of the country; even at high-income levels, penetration never exceeds 10 percent. In hot areas, however, the pattern is very different. Penetration begins low but then increases steadily with income to reach near 80 percent.

Davis and Gertler, PNAS, 2015. Copyright 2015 National Academy of Sciences, USA.
Davis and Gertler, PNAS, 2015. Copyright 2015 National Academy of Sciences, USA.

As Mexicans grow richer, many more will buy air conditioners. And as average temperatures increase, the reach of air conditioning will be extended, even to the relatively cool areas where saturation is currently low. Our model predicts that near 100 percent of households will have air conditioning in all the warm areas within just a few decades.

Global air conditioning potential

We expect this pattern to hold not only in Mexico but around the world. When you look around, there are a lot of hot places where people are getting richer. In our study, we ranked countries in terms of air conditioning potential. We defined potential as the product of population and cooling degree days, or CDDs, a unit used to determine the demand for energy to cool buildings.

Davis and Gertler, PNAS, 2015. Copyright 2015 National Academy of Sciences, USA.
Davis and Gertler, PNAS, 2015. Copyright 2015 National Academy of Sciences, USA.

Number one on the list is India. India is massive, with four times the population of the United States. It is also extremely hot. Annual CDDs are 3,120, compared to only 882 in the United States. That is, India’s total air conditioning potential is more than 12 times that of the United States.

Mexico ranks #12 but has fewer than half the CDDs experienced by India, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand. These countries currently have lower GDP per capita, but our research predicts rapid air conditioning adoption in these countries over the next couple of decades.

Carbon cliff?

What does all this mean for carbon dioxide emissions? It depends on the pace of technological change, both for cooling equipment and for electricity generation.

Today’s air conditioners use only about half as much electricity now as in 1990, and continued advances in energy efficiency could reduce the energy consumption impacts substantially. Likewise, continued development of solar, wind and other low-carbon sources of electricity generation could mitigate the increases in carbon dioxide emissions.

ACs cranking in Shanghai, China.  question_everything/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND
ACs cranking in Shanghai, China. question_everything/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

As an economist, my view is that the best way to get there is a carbon tax. Higher-priced electricity would slow the adoption and use of air conditioning, while spurring innovation in energy efficiency. A carbon tax would also give a boost to renewable generating technologies, increasing their deployment. Low- and middle-income countries are anticipating large increases in energy demand over the next several decades, and carbon legislation along the lines of carbon tax is the most efficient approach to meeting that demand with low-carbon technologies.

Pricing carbon would also lead to broader behavioral changes. Our homes and businesses tend to be very energy-intensive. In part, this reflects the fact that carbon emissions are free. Energy would be more expensive with a price on carbon, so more attention would go to building design. Natural shade, orientation, building materials, insulation and other considerations can have a big impact on energy consumption. We need efficient markets if we are going to stay cool without heating up the planet.

Lucas Davis, Associate Professor, University of California, Berkeley.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.