Americans love air conditioning — and to a serious fault. At least three quarters of all homes in the U.S. have an air conditioner, according to the Department of Energy, and Americans consumes more energy for cooling alone than what the entire continent of Africa uses for all purposes combined.
That’s not without serious consequence. The burden of a high utilities bill aside, fossil fuel is ultimately being burned and converted into the electricity that’s chilling our homes this summer. As a result, an estimated 117 million extra metric tons of carbon dioxide is being pumped into the air solely because of U.S. air conditioning.
Now, a study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison has a disturbing new revelation: In a simulation of a three-month summer period, air pollution directly related to fossil fuel burning that powers air conditioning accounts for about 1,000 deaths. Even worse, that figure only covers the Eastern United States. And as climate change turns increasingly turns up the heat, the problem could get worse as more Americans compensate by further refrigerating themselves indoors.
In other words, the U.S. has a vicious cycle on its hands.
“We’re trading problems,” Jonathan Patz, one of the study’s senior authors and a professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a release. “Heat waves are increasing and increasing in intensity. We will have more cooling demand requiring more electricity. But if our nation continues to rely on coal-fired power plants for some of our electricity, each time we turn on the air conditioning we’ll be fouling the air, causing more sickness and even deaths.”
Nevertheless, this issue is global. An estimated 35% of all air conditioners in the world are in China, and 10% of the planet’s energy consumption comes from these machines. Meanwhile, some climate models predict that the global temperature could increase by as much as 8.6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. If that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine that those used to the luxury of air conditioning will simply forego their comfort. Energy-efficient air conditioners would help with damage control, but researchers ultimately believe our source of energy fundamentally needs to change.
“The answer is clean energy,” David Abel, the study’s lead author and a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in the release. “That is something we can control that will help both climate change and future air pollution. If we change nothing, both are going to get worse.”