I suppose I’m not surprised. First, it was the green groups telling people to use less air conditioning on their own, but since that is unlikely to make a big difference, the next suggestion: resort to draconian measures like “rationing” of air conditioning.
An online “Room for Debate” segment posted on the New York Times website June 21 posed a left-leaning question to a symposium of six left-leaning outside experts: “Should Air-Conditioning Go Global, or Be Rationed Away?” While it may have been acceptable for New Yorkers to beat the heat with air conditioning, when developing countries like India strives for the same comfort, it becomes an environmental concern to privileged liberals. The Times asked from its air-conditioned headquarters in Midtown Manhattan:
Temperatures in New York City have pushed toward 100 degrees this week, and air-conditioners strained the power grid (thanks in part to stores with their doors open). Meanwhile the demand for coolant gases, especially in rapidly developing countries like India, threatens to accelerate global warming.
Is it a good goal for everyone in the world to have access to air-conditioning — like clean water or the Internet? Or is it an unsustainable luxury, which air-conditioned societies should be giving up or rationing?
The debate was keyed to a 2,000-word piece that same day by environmental reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal, “Relief in Every Window, but Global Worry Too.”
In the ramshackle apartment blocks and sooty concrete homes that line the dusty roads of urban India, there is a new status symbol on proud display. An air-conditioner has become a sign of middle-class status in developing nations, a must-have dowry item.
It is cheaper than a car, and arguably more life-changing in steamy regions, where cooling can make it easier for a child to study or a worker to sleep.
But as air-conditioners sprout from windows and storefronts across the world, scientists are becoming increasingly alarmed about the impact of the gases on which they run. All are potent agents of global warming.
So the therapy to cure one global environmental disaster is now seeding another. â€śThere is precious little time to do something, to act,â€ť said Stephen O. Andersen, the co-chairman of the treatyâ€™s technical and economic advisory panel.
Rosenthal also contributed a personal dose of liberal guilt to the paper’s Green blog, “My Air-Conditioner Envy,” complaining that she can’t buy a more environmentally correct model and so chooses to forgo repairing her old evil one. (A confession that calls Rosenthal’s journalistic objectivity on the matter into question.)
With scorching heat enveloping New York City this week, Iâ€™m suffering from air-conditioner envy. I want a model like the one I saw in April at the Terre Policy Center in Pune, India. But I canâ€™t buy it.
As Andrew W. Lehren and I report in The Times, the warming effects of air-conditioning gases are reaching crisis proportions as more and more people in countries like India and China buy the appliances. (Some readers have rightly pointed out that people in industrialized countries depend far more heavily on air-conditioning.)
At least she’s not a hypocrite; Rosenthal is willing to (metaphorically) don Jimmy Carter’s cardigan sweater, and personally suffer in the heat to save the planet.
Which is why I canâ€™t bear to replace the old air-conditioner in my living room, even though it is on the fritz and not cooling much these days. Having reported on the coolant issue, I am reluctant to invest in a model containing any of the coolant gases commercially available in the United States. Iâ€™d prefer to wait until a machine with a climate-friendly coolant is available. And I know there are many options in development.
In August 2011, Rosenthal called on China and India to turn off their air conditioners to save the planet, writing “As more people in more countries come to rely on air-conditioning, the idea of thermal comfort may need to be rethought to curb the growth in greenhouse gas emissions.”
First, I don’t see any point in debating whether air conditioning is a luxury or a necessity. Certainly, for those with health conditions or the elderly, air conditioning is a necessity for life and health. When heat waves occur, people die in unairconditioned homes, and if more had air conditioning, this would not be as great a problem.
It’s certainly true that not all who have air conditioning absolutely need it to survive. Right now, as I write this, it’s in the mid 90’s outside (which is about 35 C for the rest of the world) and I’m sitting in my home in air conditioned comfort. If I did not have air conditioning, I would not die, but I’d be very uncomfortable. I would likely be less productive, and I’d have a great deal of trouble sleeping tonight. Applied to a whole society, it’s easy to see how a public subjected to the discomfort of not having air conditioning would result in lower worker productivity, greater incidents of disease and general degradation in standards of living.
And, of course, air conditioning, like anything else, is an industry that produces jobs and economic growth. Someone had to build my air conditioning system and every so often it needs to be serviced. I’m happy to pay for this and get comfort in return. Indeed, the field of HVAC has turned into a major employer in the United States.
It really seems to say something about the latent agenda here that the thing bothering people is that residents of India can now have air conditioners. Using air conditioning does have an environmental footprint, but nearly everything in the world does. As far as I am concerned, this does not mean that it’s a technology that should be denied to people simply because their skin is brown. In decades past, only the very rich in India may have been able to enjoy air conditioning. Today the upper middle class can afford it. That’s generally how the proliferation of technology goes. In years to come it will become cheaper still and even more Indians and Chinese can have air conditioning.
I think this is great. It means that more of my fellow human beings are getting to enjoy higher standards of living and can now afford to have the comfort we Westerners have taken for granted for years. Doing so will require some expenditure, such as upgrades to the power grid, but all increases in standards of living have requirements. The use of energy is not inherently sinful, though the results can harm the environment. None the less, there’s no reason to say that other people are not entitled to make that decision for themselves. Ultimately, it’s the source of the energy that needs to be changed, not the way it is used.
As for the refrigerants in air conditioners:
Modern air conditioning systems all use refrigerants that are environmentally safe and do not deplete the ozone. Of course, if you have an old one that does not, that does not mean you should chuck it in the trash, since that would only make it worse, but you should consider having it properly disposed of when its useful life is over, thus avoiding the refrigerant being released. Some modern refrigerants do have the potential to be greenhouse gasses, but their total volume is small enough to make this a minor concern.
There are many refrigerants out there, and, depending on the circumstances, some may offer greater efficiency than others. The laws of thermodynamics put hard limits on how little energy you can get away with, and moving large amounts of heat from one place to another is always an energy-intensive undertaking. In most modern residential air conditioners, tetrafluoroethane is the refrigerant of choice. It’s chemically stable, non-toxic and works well at the temperatures and pressures most air conditioners operate at.
Other refrigerants exist and have been used on various scales. Large industrial systems may use ammonia and early systems employed methal formate, chlormethane or even sulfur dioxide. Carbon doixide has also been used in air conditioning applications.
Hydorcarbons like propane or butane can also be used and may offer advantages, but they are far from perfect. They can present a real danger in a fire, where an air conditioner can suddenly become a fuel-air bomb if it’s packed with compressed propane. Care must be taken to avoid venting gas, as may happen if the unit is overpressure or has a blockage, as doing so could be an acute fire hazard. At least one fire in Thailand was attributed to the malfunction of the compressor in an air conditioning system that used flammable refrigerant.
For those who demand hydrocarbon-driven air conditioning NOW, before such systems meet full safety standards, you can buy DIY kits to recharge your existing system with propane, but be aware that they may not work properly or efficiently in a system that is not designed for such refrigerant and also present a fire hazard.
Regardless of your ethnicity of nation of origin, I have no problem with you enjoying the comforts of air conditioning. Of course, newer air conditioners tend to be better than old, but don’t expect a change in the type of coolant to move mountains. If you are concerned about the possibility that the gasses in your air conditioner could exacerbate global warming, just make sure you keep it well serviced, so they don’t have a chance to escape, and when it reaches the end of its life, make sure they are properly removed and contained for re-use.
None the less, with proper precautions, hydrocarbon air conditioners may well become more common, assuming they can meet all fire and building codes. Still, it does not change much. At best, the most efficient air conditioners only use 20% less energy to accomplish the same thing that the more traditional units do. This still makes them major consumers of energy. The direct contribution of refrigerants to greenhouse gas emissions is minimal, regardless of the type of gas used.
This entry was posted on Saturday, June 30th, 2012 at 4:37 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Culture, Enviornment, Good Science, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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