Air Conditioners and Global Warming

How Can Traditional Air Conditioners Worsen Global Warming?

The world is getting hotter and the significant rise in the demand for air-conditioners will only make it worse. The United Nations predicts that if current trends continue, around 10% of global greenhouse emissions could come from air-conditioning and other efforts to lower temperatures in homes and buildings.

The cooling industry is undoubtedly facing a big demand for growth, but it cannot fulfill this demand without taking climate impacts into account. Families and businesses that use traditional air-conditioners can benefit from greater awareness about the impact of sticking to old, inefficient machines.

Old units use significant amounts of energy and can potentially leak refrigerant gases, which can exacerbate the situation. 

A Heavy Reliance on Refrigerants

Traditional air-conditioners rely on refrigerants (HFCs or hydrofluorocarbons), which can release greenhouse gases that contribute to the global warming problem. These gases are emitted if there is a leak or if breakage occurs during the installation and maintenance of machines.

The good news is that developments are consistently being made in this sphere. A few years ago, a 19-year-old Filipina student developed and filed patents for a new cooling system that did not require refrigerants to run. Instead of relying on a cooling medium, the new system uses low compression and a high volume of air molecules to replace refrigerants.

It is just one indication of the fact that the way forward is greener and more efficient. Some innovative models use an evaporative cooling system, which also bypasses the need for refrigerant by pulling outside air in, passing it over water-saturated pads, and allowing the water to evaporate and cool the environment.

Energy Wastage

New, efficient HVAC systems, built on electric and hybrid models, can improve energy savings by up to 50% per year compared to traditional units. In air-conditioners, energy efficiency is measured by a rating called SEER (the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio). Most new air-conditioners have a SEER of at least 13 (the higher the number, the more energy-efficient the unit) though some have a rating of 15 or higher—thus garnering them the Energy Star certification.

Newer air-conditioning systems save energy in another way: many have self-cleaning functions and provide easier access to components, which makes them easier to clean. Older models with components that are harder to take apart can have a host of problems, including increased energy consumption caused by clogged air filters, dust, and dirt buildup in hard-to-reach areas, and more.

Some older HVAC models can get smelly too and can harm your indoor air quality owing to everything from trapped insects and rodents to mold and mildew. 

Heat Emissions

Traditional air-conditioners can directly increase the temperature because they work by transferring heat from within buildings to the outdoor environment. When many traditional air-conditioners work this way in a specific area, they can create urban heat islands, causing specific zones to have significantly higher temperatures than those of surrounding areas.

This, in turn, can lead to a higher demand for air-conditioners, contributing to a larger overall impact on the environment. Old air-conditioners typically end up in landfills, where their refrigerants can wreak havoc on the atmosphere and leak into the soil and water, causing significant contamination.

Some are sent to recycling facilities, since they contain valuable metals, including steel, aluminum, and copper. Specialized e-waste centers have been set up in numerous countries to counter this problem—including the US, Canada, Japan, South Korea, and countries in the EU.

In fact, countries like Germany, England, and France all follow the strict regulations imposed for e-waste management. Unfortunately, not all people use e-waste centers and recycling facilities fully. Instead, they engage in illegal dumping, which can lead to the release of hazardous substances into the soil and air. 

If you are thinking of purchasing a new air-conditioner for a home, office, or commercial building, Energy Star-rated appliances are the way to go. These devices are energy-efficient and do not rely on refrigerant, thus avoiding the problem of dangerous leakages of toxic substances. Eco-friendly models additionally help prevent the formation of urban heat islands.

As such, they help lower the demand for cooling, which is sorely needed at a time in which temperatures are consistently rising.