On a hot and humid day, nothing beats the sweet relief of a cool air-conditioned space. With the six warmest years on record all being since 2015, we are becoming increasingly dependent on air-conditioning to battle the heat in our homes, offices, shops, and cars. However, ironically, the technology we rely on to cool our spaces, is warming our world.
The cooling effects of air conditioning units are generated through the use of refrigerants, which include hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). These refrigerants slowly leak out of the units in a gas form, averaging at rates of 7-12% annually. The leakage of these gasses has highly damaging effects on our planet.
When assessing the impact that various gasses have on our climate, scientists use what are called Global Warming Potentials (GWPs). All greenhouse gasses are compared to Carbon Dioxide, which is given a GWP of 1. One of the most commonly used refrigerant gasses, R22, has a GWP of 1760. This means that R22 has a warming effect 1760 times greater than that of Carbon Dioxide. When quantifying emissions, the term Carbon Dioxide equivalents (CO2e) is used to represent the quantity of Carbon Dioxide that would create the same amount of warming. In the case of a single small air conditioner using an R22 refrigerant, 82kg of CO2e would be emitted per year*.
R22 and many other HCFCs are being phased out internationally due to their deleterious effects. However, their replacements, HFCs, are still very harmful. R32, for example, has a GWP of 677, meaning that a small air conditioner using this refrigerant would emit 31kg of CO2e per year. This may not sound like a lot, but estimates suggest there are over one billion small air conditioners in the world. Even using the most environmentally friendly refrigerants, that would still equate to 31 million tonnes of CO2e per year from just these small units alone!
The issue, of course, is not limited to small air conditioning units. Vehicle air conditioners, heat pumps, transport refrigeration, household fridges, and freezers all use (and leak) harmful refrigerant emissions. The electrical power required to fuel this equipment also takes a massive toll on our environment, which is only set to increase as more and more people turn to domestic air-conditioning.
The solution to all this is to avoid using air-conditioning. It’s pretty obvious, but frustratingly hard to accept if you’re used to a climate-controlled life. Unfortunately, the battle against climate change is often one of sacrifices such as this. However, with the help of fans, added greenery, better insulation, and increased airflow, you can make life without air-conditioning a little easier. If you’re not prepared to forgo air-conditioning entirely, consider upgrading your unit to a newer and more efficient model, which utilises HFCs such as R32.
*figure calculated using the following formula and assuming a charge capacity of 1.55kg and leakage rate of 3.0%: kgCO2e= number of units x charge capacity (kg) x times used (years) x leak rate (%) x GWP