Air conditioners may cool off your home, but they’re also helping to heat up the planet, according to a new United Nations report that’s calling for more energy-efficient cooling devices.
Adopting more energy-efficient air conditioning could prevent the release of up to 460 billion tons of emissions over 40 years, the UN report found.
As climate change causes warmer temperatures, more people will use cooling devices more frequently, according to the report. Buildings tripled the demand for air conditioning between 1990 and 2016, the UN found.
Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are used as refrigerants in some air conditioners, and may be released into the air during manufacturing and disposal, or if the unit has a leak. HFCs don’t deplete the ozone layer, as some previously used refrigerants did, but they are greenhouse gases that are more potent than carbon dioxide, according to a 2017 study. The units themselves also take a lot of power to run, making them double-trouble for the Earth.
The U.N. report recommends a number of ways to reduce the damage from HFCs.
Better building design would make air conditioning use less frequent, for example. The report’s authors also recommend countries adopt performance standards, to push manufacturers to make more efficient devices. Widely recognized labels, such as Energy Star in the U.S., would help people identify more eco-friendly options. If Aair conditioners were made twice as efficient by 2050, it could save 1,300 gigawatts of electricity worldwide. That would add up to a global cost savings of $2.9 trillion.
There’s a precedent for the universal cooperation it will take to reduce HFC use. In 1987, governments around the world agreed to the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty aimed at phasing out ozone-damaging chlorofluorocarbons. The treaty’s recent Kigali Amendment is a plan to do the same with HFCs.
If HFC use continues unchecked, emissions could increase global temperatures by 0.3 to 0.5 degrees Celsius (0.54 to 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. While some states, such as California, are working on phasing out these refrigerants, the U.S. hasn’t signed on to the Kigali Amendment.