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Is beating the heat with air conditioners right choice for you?

This representational picture shows several outers of air conditioners attached to building’s wall. — AFP/File

The Earth has experienced record-breaking temperatures this month, with Phoenix, Arizona breaking its record for most 110°F (43.3°C) days and the climate crisis has led to more frequent and severe heatwaves, which are expected to worsen in the coming days.

To combat the heat, people are increasingly turning to air conditioning and the International Energy Agency predicts a 244% increase in global AC units by 2050. Additionally, Climate Central’s 2020 analysis suggests a 59% increase in demand within the US, The Guardian reported.

While increased access to air conditioning could potentially save lives, it may also have drawbacks. Here is why you should ditch the air conditioner consider some alternatives to make your summer bearable.

Expensive costs make it inaccessible

The cost of the cooling technology provided by an air conditioner can make it inaccessible to poor communities, particularly in the US and globally.

Lower-income households are more likely to lack access to these technologies, while 1.8 to 4.1 billion people in developing countries face high temperatures.

“In much of the world, in many countries, we’re concerned that people who most need air conditioning don’t have it,” said Narasimha Rao, a professor of energy systems at Yale University who co-authored the paper.

AC usage can put pressure on electricity grids, potentially causing power outages and heat waves in cities like Phoenix. While efforts are being made to make air conditioners more affordable and improve grid reliability, the Earth is being warm by the appliances.

Between now and 2050, cooling technologies, including AC units, are projected to be the biggest contributor to growing energy demand, as most global energy comes from fossil fuels.

The US has broken its summer record for daily gas consumption on at least two separate occasions, with AC usage being a key contributor.

AC models often use planet-heating chemicals, such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are potent greenhouse gases. Climate-friendly alternatives like hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) can also cause ecological damage.

Additionally, Ammonia and propane are also harmful when leaking. Newer HFCs like R-32 are half as planet-warming as older ones.

Experts suggest using other strategies to lower home temperatures to reduce the environmental impact of air conditioning and maintain a comfortable temperature.

Other energy-saving cooling technologies

Electric heat pumps are energy-efficient and require less refrigerant than traditional air conditioners, allowing them to heat and cool homes efficiently. These appliances draw cool air in hot days, making them a popular choice for homes.

Traditional ACs and heat pumps both cool homes by directly lowering air temperature and also by pulling moisture out of the air, which can make a home more comfortable. But combining the two processes makes the appliances “terribly inefficient”, said Les Norford, professor of building technology in the Department of Architecture at MIT.

Norford and others are developing new technologies to improve air conditioner efficiency by separating the two functions. Some models use living membranes or physical desiccants instead of energy-powered processes to remove moisture.

The International Energy Agency states that in 2018, average air was less than half as efficient as the best available technology, and the least efficient models, often found in low-income households, require more power, making them more climate-warming and expensive.

More alternatives for cooling

Yale professor Rao suggests that fans, which are cheaper and less energy-consumption than ACs, can significantly improve home cooling. They can provide up to 2C of relief in hot, dry environments.

Rao is also exploring the use of dehumidifiers as a widespread cooling technology, as they can enhance comfort in hot and muggy areas.

“In Mumbai, where I’m from, you can have tremendous relief from drying the air,” he said. “In my house it’s pretty hot and humid, but I go to the basement which has no air conditioning, just dehumidification, and it’s still so much cooler.”

Low-energy technology like air coolers, also known as swamp coolers, are cost-efficient and widely available. These devices use a fan to recirculate air across a wet material, dispersing dampened air into the home. Low-tech ways to keep homes cool are also available.

Buildings can be better designed to keep temperatures down.

Vivek Shandas, a geography professor at Portland State University, emphasises the importance of weatherisation in urban areas. He argues that ACs are often placed in older homes and lower-income communities without proper weatherisation, leading to residents cranking them to their highest settings.

Weatherisation would reduce the amount of AC needed for comfortable indoor temperatures, resulting in lower energy bills and greenhouse gas emissions.

Mobile homes and trailers, often made with steel or aluminium, are vulnerable to extreme heat. Metal roofs are common in South Asia and other parts of the global south due to their affordability. Improving the availability and affordability of materials like brick and stone could save lives in extreme heat.

White roofs and buildings can help lower indoor temperatures by reflecting 60-90% of sunlight. Wind towers and water ponds can draw cool breezes indoors, while ventilation systems like wind towers can draw cool breezes.

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