A contruction worker drinks water in temperatures that have reached well above triple digits in Palm Springs, California, U.S. July 20, 2022.  REUTERS/David Swanson
Hear why officials are urging people to take heat wave seriously
01:19 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based writer focusing on renewable energy in Europe. He is the author of four books on European issues, most recently “Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.” The opinions in this article are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

American friends visiting my downtown Berlin apartment at the height of summer always guffaw at my rinky-dink plastic fan, propped up on a bookshelf above my desk.

Paul Hockenos

Inevitably, they go on to moan about the stuffy, sweaty restaurants and night clubs that go without air conditioning as if it had never been invented.

For their part, Europeans had, until recently, done their own grousing about Americans’ infatuation with AC: so wasteful in its high energy usage, unhealthy with the frosty temperatures in mid-summer and annoying given the incessant buzz of the window units!

Air con was seen as yet another luxury item of an everything-all-the-time population that insisted on a constant temperature year-round – and gave no thought to its environmental implications.

But the planet’s recent record-breaking heat waves – and the desperate urge to stay cool – has Europeans in particular, rethinking their prejudices and shelling out for indoor cooling systems.

In Europe, according to one industry estimate, just 20% of homes have AC units. In the United Kingdom, which this week suffered through its highest recorded temperature, it’s less than 5%. In Germany, it’s only about 3%. That’s compared to 90% in the US.

There’s been a wild run on America’s luxurious eyesore this summer, which in 100-degree-plus weather is no longer considered a luxury. Indeed since 2000, when temperatures began to spike noticeably, the numbers of homes and businesses opting for AC has risen steadily worldwide.

This year’s sweltering temperatures have seen AC purchases skyrocket in France and the UK, according to the climate data firm Kayrros. The trend is unmistakable: two-thirds of the world’s households could have an air conditioner by 2050.

A vicious cycle of emissions

Europeans’ – and indeed the world’s – embrace of AC, however, is relevant far beyond the humble pie they appear to be digesting without a burp.

As temperatures climb inexorably upward, which science attests they will until greenhouse gas emissions are curbed, the world finds itself in an ostensibly inextricable bind – called the vicious circle of air conditioning.

The scorched graveyard around a church following a large blaze in Wennington, east London, on Tuesday. The UK experienced a record-breaking heatwave this week.

Namely, AC is an extremely energy-intensive means of cooling space. According to a World Bank report from 2019, cooling tech such as refrigerators, air conditioners, and other devices chalk up as much as 10% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. This is more than double the footprint of aviation and maritime together! At this rate, cooling emissions could double by 2030 and triple by 2100, added the report.

When the mercury has shot up this year, energy demand from cooling of all kinds, including fans, went through the roof – thus so will emissions. Last year’s record hot summer was one factor – among others, including post-Covid-19 lockdown recovery – in the European Union’s 6.3% jump in emissions over 2020, according to the European Commission.

In other words, the hotter the planet gets, the greater the need – in many places in Asia and the Middle East, and parts of the US and Europe, an existential need – for cooling.