A worker quenches his thirst in New Delhi, where temperatures can sometimes approach 50 degrees Celsius
A worker quenches his thirst in New Delhi, where temperatures can sometimes approach 50 degrees Celsius © AFP via Getty Images

Deaths. Melting tarmac. Power outages. These are the consequences of summer heatwaves that have become more intense across India, routinely pushing temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius. Even in the neighbouring Pakistani city of Jacobabad, the temperature earlier this year reached the level at which the human body cannot cool itself.

As temperatures soar, so too does the demand for ways to stay cool. India is expected to account for a third of all sales of air conditioners over the coming decades, according to the International Energy Agency. Ensuring access to cooling for the more than 1bn people exposed to South Asia’s extreme heat is vital for health, as well as economic and social development.

But more electricity-guzzling and greenhouse-gas emitting air conditioners risk accelerating global warming. And that is why authorities and researchers are urgently working with companies and consumers to ensure India’s demand for cooling is met with more energy-efficient methods. These can range from choosing refrigerant gases less harmful to the environment, to making cleaner technologies more affordable.

“Climate change is causing longer, more intense heatwaves,” says Prima Madan, a consultant at the environmental campaign group Natural Resources Defense Council. “There’s a need for air conditioning. But what is important here is that the increased demand will further contribute to climate change, increase pollution, and have adverse impacts on public health if it were to be met with inefficient technologies.”

An area chart showing global air conditioner stock

Nine of 10 households in India do not have air conditioning, according to the NRDC, with fans and vapour-emitting coolers being more commonly used. But, for low-income families, securing a first air conditioner can have life-changing effects on sleep, productivity, and health.

Improved cold storage is also needed for vaccine and food supply chains, as more than a third of India’s food still rots in the heat before it reaches consumers.

“Cooling is no longer something that should be considered a luxury; it’s an issue of sustainability,” says Ben Hartley, a specialist on energy efficiency at advocacy group Sustainable Energy for All.

The most energy efficient air conditioners can be unaffordable for even middle-income households . . . 
The most energy efficient air conditioners can be unaffordable for even middle-income households . . .  © Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg
. . . making fans and vapour-emitting coolers much more common in India
. . . making fans and vapour-emitting coolers much more common in India © Money Sharma/AFP via Getty Images

Some measures can reduce demand for energy-intensive solutions. Reflective paints on roofs, which help keep temperatures down, are vital in slums where residents have little prospect of affording an air conditioner. Energy conservation rules, which India has introduced, can also ensure more efficient buildings are constructed.

This will only go so far, however. India’s Bureau of Energy Efficiency runs a programme to rate appliances on their efficiency, from one to five stars. Only around a fifth of households use five-star rated air conditioners, according to a study in Delhi by Radhika Khosla, an associate professor at Oxford university. Three-star devices are the most widely employed.

Differences in air conditioner ratings come down to factors such as the refrigerant gases they use. Propane, for example, has a lower global warming potential than more widely used gases. The effectiveness of compressors, inverters and other parts can also vary widely. “The difference between the best models in the market and the models that are being purchased by households is quite large,” Khosla says.

But the higher prices charged for five-star air conditioners makes these efficient models unaffordable to low- and middle-income households. Brian Dean at Sustainable Energy for All says some manufacturers maintain a price differential despite acknowledging that the more efficient appliances cost the same to produce as lower-rated versions.

A man waits for customers displaying fans at his store amid rising temperatures in New Delhi on May 27, 2020
© Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

Kamal Nandi, head of appliances at Indian conglomerate Godrej & Boyce, said his five-star models sell at around Rs40,000 ($534), roughly 15 per cent more than three-star units. Nandi justifies the premium as a reflection of the investment that goes into designing more efficient models. “You need to invest in cooling technologies,” he says. “If the scale goes up for five stars, maybe you’ll get better economies and your price will be better.”

India’s government — aware of both the environmental damage and cost-saving potential of more efficient products — has established a state-owned company to help upgrade equipment. Energy Efficiency Services Limited works with private-sector businesses and local utilities to replace inefficient appliances with better ones. EESL has already distributed millions of LED lightbulbs and energy-efficient fans to its partners, for example.

Khosla says EESL has done impressive work, so far, in lighting — but she argues that managing a transition to more efficient air conditioners will be tougher. “It has been one of the most remarkable transitions to LED lighting anywhere in the world,” she says. “They’ve not been as effective on air conditioning. That’s been much harder.”

But success in the area is critical. In 2018, the IEA warned that the growing use of air conditioners in homes and offices around the world could be one of the top drivers of global electricity demand over the next three decades.

It has estimated that, without action, global energy demand from air conditioners could triple by 2050, requiring new electricity capacity the equivalent to the present combined capacity of the US, the EU and Japan.

However, it also concluded that, with co-ordinated 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 cut in half.

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