Is Green Air Conditioning Possible, or Even Necessary?

If we’re not burning dirty fossil fuels ourselves, we hardly notice they’re happening.

We’ve talked before about how much of our electricity is actually powered by fossil fuels (around 63%, at last count) and how easy it is to forget that when we talk about “saving power” in our homes, we’re still talking about carbon emissions. 

After all, we don’t fuel up our homes with gasoline and have to refill the tank when we’re running low – we just pay the bill once a month. The bill doesn’t usually tell us what the carbon impact of our electricity usage was based on our meters.

And as the Earth heats…

And our air quality worsens during the dog days of summer…

Our human hubris tends to think short-term and crank up the A/C. 

Record high temperatures are happening all over the world this summer, and A/C usage is following those record highs like a shadow

That makes sense, right? We’re told we can’t be outside for long periods of time. Okay, fine, we’ll do our civic duty and stay inside then. 

But it’s been… upwards of 90 degrees all over the country. So we cool down the air inside and fork over a little extra every month in our bills.

And we don’t think about the cost on the environment.

A new report makes clear the kind of tab we’ll be running.

The Next 30 Years of A/C

According to a report released by Climate Central, our future is looking hot and cold.

The report surveys 242 American cities and their cooling degree days (CDD), which are days during which people actually use their air conditioner. 

While the American south and west have seen an obvious and major uptick in A/C usage, every part of the country has seen some increase in CDDs. 

And if we continue to increase our usage at this rate, we’ll see the average A/C use increase 59% by 2050. 

Why is that such a problem?

Air conditioning units, and electricity in general, release carbon dioxide emissions which trap heat in the environment. In urban settings with millions of air conditioning window units, that’s a big, immediate problem – everyone using their units contributes to how hot it feels outside.

But simply using more air conditioning on a grand, national scale produces the same result – higher temperatures in response to heat being trapped by emissions.

Of that 242 sampling, 96% have seen an increase in CDDs since the data begins back in the 1970s. Based on how much usage has jumped even amid this year’s heatwaves, we’re looking at a much more serious reliance on its cooling effects in the future.

It’s not a great feedback loop to be stuck in – the earth is warmer, so we need air conditioning… but the air conditioning emits carbon dioxide and uses hydrofluorocarbons, which actually heat the earth even faster than carbon dioxide.

Knowing what we know now, how can we proceed consciously?

Green Cooling

There are a few ways we can work to reduce the usage of air conditioning in the hotter months.

The first is pretty analog… go old school! Wear less clothing around the house, keep windows open with screens in, take cold showers whenever you can, eschew blankets during the very hot, very still days, etc.

And although we know that electricity itself contributes to the climate crisis, it’s important to remember that small things, like the type of refrigerant in your A/C unit, can also have a massive impact.

If you own your home or otherwise in a position where you can choose the kind of model you’re using, consider:

  1. Upgrading to R-32 Freon which reduces carbon dioxide emissions…
  2. Upgrading to a two stage compressor unit, which compresses less and therefore uses less energy automatically on cooler days…
  3. Installing a geothermal heat pump, which though expensive, can use the temperature differences in the earth save major energy…
  4. Installing a programmable thermostat to ensure you’re not using energy when no one is home…
  5. And exploring energy smart or eco-friendly window units which are just beginning to come onto the market.

Otherwise, do as the ancients did as much as possible!

Cook outside on the grill, or inside with a crockpot instead of the stove. Stay hydrated and cool! Hang wet reeds in the window to chill the breeze like the Egyptians – just kidding… Unless, of course, you’ve got reeds and can do that.

Most of all, stay conscious. Whenever you go to turn on the A/C, think twice.

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.