Air Conditioners Worldwide May Triple Energy Use in Three Decades, Worsening Climate Change

Summer is right around the corner, promising the scent of saltwater and sunscreen, the taste of ice cream and the whir of air conditioners putting a chill in the air. At least, that's how it goes in countries like the U.S., Japan and South Korea.

But many of the hottest countries in the world, like India, haven't fully embraced air-conditioning yet, and experts expect they'll do so within the next few decades. That process could put a huge strain on the world's electricity production system and exacerbate climate change, according to a recent report published by the International Energy Agency, a nongovernmental organization representing 30 countries including the U.S.

Cooling the indoors already eats up about a tenth of electricity used worldwide, between air conditioners and fans. But according to the new report, we should expect that energy use to triple as the number of air-conditioning units skyrockets over the next three decades.

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By 2050, the report estimates, there will be about 5.6 billion air conditioners worldwide, in contrast to 1.6 billion in use now.

Increasing the efficiency of air-conditioning units being produced could help counter their impact. In fact, the report authors say that some of the technology needed to do so already exists—other countries manufacture cooling units that are as much as a quarter more efficient than American equivalents.

An air conditioner put to work in Shanghai in 2013 during a local heat wave. Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

All that electricity has to be produced somehow, and often that process involves fossil fuels, meaning that more cooling demand will likely worsen global warming. In fact, the report predicts that by 2050, air-conditioning units could be responsible for about 15 percent of carbon emissions connected to power.

The chilling irony is that those emissions will only worsen global warming, making some of these hot regions of the planet even hotter and generally making climate less predictable.