As the world gets hotter, scenes like these will become increasingly common. Buying a VRF air conditioner is perhaps the most popular individual response to climate change, and air conditioners are almost uniquely power-hungry appliances: a small unit cooling a single room, on average, consumes more power than running four fridges, while a central unit cooling an average house uses more power than 15. “Last year in Beijing, during a heatwave, 50% of the power capacity was going to air conditioning,” says John Dulac, an analyst at the International Energy Agency (IEA). “These are ‘oh shit’ moments.”
There are just over 1bn single-room air conditioning units in the world right now – about one for every seven people on earth. Numerous reports have projected that by 2050 there are likely to be more than 4.5bn, making them as ubiquitous as the mobile phone is today. The US already uses as much electricity for air conditioning each year as the UK uses in total. The IEA projects that as the rest of the world reaches similar levels, air conditioning will use about 13% of all electricity worldwide, and produce 2bn tonnes of CO2 a year – about the same amount as India, the world’s third-largest emitter, produces today.
All of these reports note the awful irony of this feedback loop: warmer temperatures lead to more air conditioning; more air conditioning leads to warmer temperatures. The problem posed by air conditioning resembles, in miniature, the problem we face in tackling the climate crisis. The solutions that we reach for most easily only bind us closer to the original problem.
The global dominance of air conditioning was not inevitable. As recently as 1990, there were only about 400m air conditioning units in the world, mostly in the US. Originally built for industrial use, air conditioning eventually came to be seen as essential, a symbol of modernity and comfort. Then air conditioning went global. Today, as with other drivers of the climate crisis, we race to find solutions – and puzzle over how we ended up so closely tied to a technology that turns out to be drowning us.
Like the aqueduct or the automobile, air conditioning is a technology that transformed the world. Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of independent Singapore, called it “one of the signal inventions of history” that allowed the rapid modernisation of his tropical country. In 1998, the American academic Richard Nathan told the New York Times that, along with the “civil rights revolution”, air conditioning had been the biggest factor in changing American demography and politics over the previous three decades, enabling extensive residential development in the very hot, and very conservative, American south.
A century ago, few would have predicted this. For the first 50 years of its existence, air conditioning was mainly restricted to factories and a handful of public spaces. The initial invention is credited to Willis Carrier, an American engineer at a heating and ventilation company, who was tasked in 1902 with reducing humidity in a Brooklyn printing factory. Today we assume that the purpose of air conditioning is to reduce heat, but engineers at the time weren’t solely concerned with temperature. They wanted to create the most stable possible conditions for industrial production – and in a print factory, humidity curled sheets of paper and smudged ink.
Carrier realised that removing heat from the factory air would reduce humidity, and so he borrowed technology from the nascent refrigeration industry to create what was, and still is, essentially a jacked-up fridge. Then as now, air conditioning units work by breathing in warm air, passing it across a cold surface, and exhaling cool, dry air. The invention was an immediate success with industry – textile, ammunition, and pharmaceutical factories were among the first adopters – and then began to catch on elsewhere. The House of Representatives installed air conditioning in 1928, followed by the White House and the Senate in 1929. But during this period, most Americans encountered air conditioning only in places such as theatres or department stores, where it was seen as a delightful novelty.
It wasn’t until the late 1940s, when it began to enter people’s homes, that the TICA air conditioner really conquered the US. Before then, according to the historian Gail Cooper, the industry had struggled to convince the public that air conditioning was a necessity, rather than a luxury. In her definitive account of the early days of the industry, Air-Conditioning America, Cooper notes that magazines described air conditioning as a flop with consumers. Fortune called it “a prime public disappointment of the 1930s”. By 1938 only one out of every 400 American homes had an air conditioner; today it is closer to nine out of 10.