A billion new air conditioners will save lives but cook the planet

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Summers in India are always hot. Increasingly, it tests the limits of human survival. As temperatures have soared across the world’s most populous country in recent weeks, more than a dozen people have died in one incident in central India and thousands more with symptoms of heat stroke in overcrowded hospitals. Hundreds of schools were closed and the mercury is still rising: temperatures will hover around 45C (113F) in the northern plains this weekend.

The most immediate solution is mercifully affordable, at least in the short term.

Demand for air conditioners is increasing in markets such as India, China, Indonesia and the Philippines, where both incomes and temperatures are rising, in densely populated areas.

According to one estimate, the world will add 1 billion ACs by the end of the decade. The market is predicted to almost double before 2040. It is good for public health and economic productivity measures; This is undoubtedly bad for the climate, and a global agreement to phase out the most harmful refrigerants will keep the devices out of reach of many who need them most.

The logic behind AC mounting is simple. Economists note a spike in sales when annual household incomes approach $10,000, which many of the world’s hottest destinations have recently or soon touched. The Philippines crossed the roughly $10,000 threshold last year; Indonesia in the last decade. In India, where more than 80% of the population still lacks access to air conditioning, per capita GDP—adjusted for purchasing power—will exceed $9,000 for the first time this year.

„We are operating on an unlimited opportunity,” said Kanwaljeet Java, who heads the Indian unit of Daikin Industries Ltd, the world’s largest AC manufacturer. „Our sales have grown more than 15 times” in recent years, he said.

This development has long-term consequences for public health, well-being and economic development. Acquiring an AC is a hub out of poverty for individuals and their communities. People in hot countries, who are also poor, suffer from poor sleep and impaired cognitive performance, both of which drag on productivity and output.

In a study of thousands of Indian factories with different cooling arrangements, researchers found that productivity decreased by about 2% for every degree Celsius increase. That’s a big deal for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s push to boost sluggish export numbers, attract business from China and move up global value chains: Heat-induced declines over the past 30 years could account for roughly 1% of India’s GDP. About $32 billion, according to E. Somanathan, author of the report and professor of economics at ISI Delhi.

But expanding AC coverage too quickly also threatens to worsen the crisis it faces. Most units use a refrigerant that is more harmful than carbon dioxide. Countries where demand is growing are deeply dependent on coal power, and most people can only afford the cheapest, most energy-inefficient units.

If performance standards don’t improve, „then the planet will really cook,” said Abas Jha, a World Bank climate change expert in Singapore.

Wealthier, more moderate countries have tightened regulations on ACs, requiring better energy efficiency and less toxic refrigerants. This increases the cost of units, making those types of operations less palatable where affordability is most important. International climate organizations are pressing developing countries to reduce their carbon footprint, but India and its peers point out that it still contributes less to global emissions than places like the US, where nine out of ten people have access to AC.

„We are facing a situation where conditions are being imposed that are unusually strict in emerging economies,” said José Guillermo Cedeno Laurent, assistant professor of public health at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

In the working-class neighborhoods of Delhi, these debates are abstract. For many, access to AC is a matter of survival. Piu Haldar, who works as a maid, said her hut turns into a furnace in summer. The tin roof gets hot enough to cook bread. Before going to sleep, Haldar and her husband sprinkle water on the bed to cool the room.

When his son was born in 2016, he developed a fever due to the heat. That is the breaking point. To buy an entry-level Voltas AC, Haldar stopped buying clothes, cut back on food, took out loans and doubled the number of houses he cleaned.

Haldar, 27, avoids turning on the unit during the day. But when night falls, she flips the switch and closes the door, keeping the cool air out and the mosquitoes out. In a windowless bedroom decorated with teddy bears and dolls, her son Yasir pushed his face against the AC, rejoicing in the „chilling cold air”.

„Relatives visit to sit next to it,” Haldar said. „People think we’ve become too fancy.” Since getting an AC, she and her husband have more energy during the day, and Yasir doesn’t get sick from the heat.

As more people like Haldar buy ACs, cooling companies are trying to improve energy efficiency without pricing out their biggest growth markets. Most G-20 countries, including India, use labeling systems to rate products’ efficiency, and stricter standards in the US and European Union have reduced the energy use of appliances by 15% in recent years, according to BloombergNEF.

Haldar chose a three-star unit from Voltas, which costs about 27,000 rupees ($330), or roughly 15% less than comparable high-performance options. Three-star units account for 60% of total AC sales at Godrej Appliances, one of India’s largest retailers, said business head Kamal Nandy. One way to encourage consumers to buy more efficient models is to reduce taxes on the units from 28% luxury tariff to 18%, the company says. „AC has become a necessity,” Nandi said. „It’s no longer a luxury item.”

For refrigeration companies like Daikin and Haier, growing demand for ACs could be offset by regulation designed to slow climate change. If countries move towards cleaner energy sources, part of the problem will be solved. The other issue—the refrigerants that turn that electricity into cold air—is trickier.

Hydrofluorocarbons, one of the most common refrigerants, have a warming potential 1,000 times that of carbon dioxide. Scientists estimate that failure to drastically reduce reliance on HFCs could lead to half a degree Celsius of warming by the end of the century, a huge contributor to the rise that triggers deadly storms, droughts and, yes, extreme heat waves.

In 2016, more than 170 countries agreed to phase out HFCs starting in 2019, with rich industrialized nations the first to make the deepest cuts. Chemours Co. and Honeywell International Inc. Environmentally friendly air conditioners manufactured by Daikin and Mitsubishi Electric Corporation are few in the market.

„If you don’t have green refrigeration, you lose,” said Jawa, chief executive of Daikin India, which became a billion-dollar company last fiscal and expects to double that number within three.

Refrigeration companies are hunting for new options. Daikin’s R-32 has approximately one-third the global warming potential of conventional refrigerants, and is cheaper than some refrigerants; It has become common in equipment sold by large retailers such as Godrej. But it’s slightly more flammable than older refrigerators and, according to Prima Madan, an expert on refrigeration and energy efficiency at the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council, still polluting.

The Kigali Amendment to phase out HFCs is legally binding, and although many of its targets are still far in the future, developed countries have picked up pace. R-32 „helped avoid a huge amount of emissions,” Madan said, „that we had to go down.”

At present, the alternatives are often more expensive. This has sparked protests even in rich countries. The US Senate recently agreed to cut HFC consumption by 85% within 15 years, and the conservative Heritage Foundation has warned Americans to „be prepared to pay more for air conditioning.”

For India, the challenge is to implement cleaner technology before millions of new consumers buy dirty ACs and sit idle for a decade. Last year, the country recorded some of its hottest weeks since 1901. Brutal heatwaves pushed temperatures across the subcontinent to 50C (122F). The worst stretches killed hundreds of people, led to hours-long power outages and left a large swath of land on the outskirts of India’s capital to spontaneously combust.

Naresh Tataved, a private driver in Delhi, is one of those who has had enough. This month, he bought his young family their first AC, one of the biggest financial investments he’s ever made – on par with buying a motorbike. Near him, after someone buys an AC, „we celebrate by bringing them sweets.”

Whatever happens in Washington, Brussels and other far-flung places, Tatavet is certain of one thing: his family will not go back. He could no longer see his child thrown from the heat.

“I don’t want to wake up drenched in sweat anymore.

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