Deaths. Melting tarmac. Power outages. These are the aftermath of the summer heat waves that have become more intense across India, steadily pushing temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius. Even in the neighboring Pakistani city of Jacobabad, the temperature at the start of the year has reached the level to which the human body cannot cool itself.
As temperatures soar, so does the demand for ways to stay cool. India is expected to account for a third of all air conditioner sales over the next several decades, according to the International Energy Agency. Ensuring access to cooling for the more than one billion people exposed to the extreme heat of South Asia is vital for health, as well as for economic and social development.
But more energy-hungry air conditioners that emit greenhouse gases risk accelerating global warming. And that’s why authorities and researchers are urgently working with businesses and consumers to ensure India’s cooling demand is met through more energy-efficient methods. These can range from choosing refrigerant gases that are less harmful to the environment to making cleaner technologies that are more affordable.
“Climate change is causing longer and more intense heat waves,” says Prima Madan, consultant with the environmental campaign group Natural Resources Defense Council. “There is a need for air conditioning. But what is important here is that the increased demand will further contribute to climate change, increase pollution, and adversely affect public health if it were to be met by inefficient technologies. “
Nine out of ten households in India do not have air conditioning, according to the NRDC, with fans and steam coolers being more commonly used. But, for low-income families, purchasing a first air conditioner can have life-changing effects on sleep, productivity, and health.
Better cold storage is also needed for vaccines and food supply chains, as more than a third of Indian food still rots in the heat before it reaches consumers.
“Cooling is no longer something that should be considered a luxury; it’s about sustainability, ”says Ben Hartley, energy efficiency specialist at the advocacy group Sustainable Energy for All.
Certain measures can reduce the demand for energy-intensive solutions. Reflective roof paints, which help keep temperatures low, are vital in slums where residents are unlikely to afford an air conditioner. The energy conservation rules, which India introduced, can also ensure more efficient buildings are constructed.
This will only work so far, however. The Indian Bureau of Energy Efficiency runs a program to rate household appliances based on their efficiency, from one to five stars. According to a study in Delhi by Radhika Khosla, associate professor at the University of Oxford, only about a fifth of households use five-star air conditioners. Three-star devices are the most used.
The differences in air conditioner ratings boil down to factors like the refrigerant gases they use. Propane, for example, has a lower global warming potential than more widely used gases. The efficiency of compressors, inverters and other parts can also vary widely. “The difference between the best models on the market and models purchased by households is quite significant,” says Khosla.
But the higher prices charged for five-star air conditioners make these efficient models unaffordable for low- and middle-income households. Brian Dean of Sustainable Energy for All says some manufacturers maintain a price difference despite recognizing that the more efficient devices cost the same to produce as lower rated versions.
Kamal Nandi, head of home appliances at Indian conglomerate Godrej & Boyce, said its five-star models sell for around Rs 40,000 ($ 534), about 15% more than three-star units. Nandi justifies the premium as a reflection of the investment spent in designing more efficient models. “You have to invest in cooling technologies,” he says. “If the scale goes up to five stars, you might get better savings and your price will be better. “
The Indian government, aware of both the environmental damage and the cost-cutting potential of more efficient products, has established a state-owned company to help modernize the equipment. Energy Efficiency Services Limited works with private sector companies and local utilities to replace inefficient appliances with better ones. EESL has already distributed millions of energy efficient LED bulbs and fans to its partners, for example.
Khosla says EESL has done an impressive job, so far, in lighting, but argues that managing a transition to more efficient air conditioners will be more difficult. “It was one of the most remarkable transitions to LED lighting anywhere in the world,” she says. “They weren’t as efficient on the air conditioning. It was much more difficult.
But success in the region is essential. In 2018, the IEA warned that the increasing use of air conditioners in homes and offices around the world could be a major driver of global electricity demand over the next three decades.
He estimated that, without action, global energy demand for air conditioners could triple by 2050, requiring new electrical capacity equivalent to the current combined capacity of the United States, the EU and Japan.
However, he also concluded that with coordinated action between governments and manufacturers on mandatory energy performance standards and efficiency improvements, the global growth in energy demand caused by the expansion of air conditioning could be halved.