Alan Miller, South China Morning Post
Among the many impressive achievements of China’s rapid economic growth has been providing electricity to nearly all of its population, which has improved living standards in many ways. But one unintended consequence of this success has been the extensive use of air conditioning, which poses a potential risk to the global environment in the form of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
In 1990, few Chinese households had an air conditioner. Now the average is one per household. China has become the global leader in producing and using air conditioners, responsible for making 70 per cent of units worldwide and accounting for 35 per cent of global stock, compared with 23 per cent in the United States.
Although air conditioners increase economic productivity, they are also the source of environmental damage. Many are energy inefficient, consuming more power still largely provided by coal, which produces carbon dioxide, the largest source of global warming. They also rely on the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) as refrigerants, which have high global warming potential when released into the atmosphere.
As China’s economy continues to grow, so will the purchase and use of air conditioners. A big potential market is the nearly 200 million low-income urban dwellers in China who are subject to worsening heat extremes, but have limited access to cooling systems. This large group needs to be helped without further adding to the climate threat.