When summer rolls around, our first instinct is to turn on our air conditioners. However, as the effects of climate change continue to make themselves known, many of us are thinking twice about flipping the switch. When it comes to being environmentally friendly, it’s fair to say that air conditioners don’t have the best reputation. Most air conditioners on the market today are energy-guzzlers responsible for a range of pollutants. Often, it seems impossible to balance staying cool and being sustainable. However, if you want to reduce your carbon footprint, there are still eco-friendly air conditioner options available to you.
A sustainable future?
As climate change increasingly heats our world, we need to find ways to adapt. When we all rush to turn on our air conditioners during a heatwave, we are inadvertently worsening the situation. It is not just the CO2 emissions from electricity generation and refrigerant gases contributing to further climate warming. Cooling your bedroom with a traditional air conditioner releases heated exhaust into the air, increasing the temperature of an already hot environment. As a result, many cities worldwide are up to 9 degrees hotter than the surrounding countryside in summer, partly because of air conditioners. This temperature increase pushes even more people to use air conditioners when they are least efficient. In many countries, simultaneous use of vast numbers of air conditioners overwhelms the electricity grid, causing routine blackouts.
Impact of traditional air conditioners
We calculate the collective environmental impact of a single unit by looking at the carbon dioxide emitted (kgCO2e, the equivalent quantity of carbon dioxide) and the global hectare average (a measurement of the ecological impact of production). Traditional air conditioners are responsible for the emission of an enormous quantity of CO2, released during their production, use and leakage over their lifetime. The average air conditioner contains about 2 kg of refrigerant gas. The gas in an older model is typically equivalent to anywhere from 4,000 kgCO2e to more than 30,000. A flight from the far side of the world and back would emit a similar amount of CO2! Leakage through pipe joints will also cause many additional emissions throughout the life of the machine.
Some new models are switching to a more climate-conscious refrigerant called R32. However, the amount of R32 in a single unit still represents about 1,200 kgCO2e. Limiting the escape of this gas reflects the necessity of having a qualified technician extract the gas from an old air conditioner or fridge before replacing it with a new one.
Thinking in terms of trees
These figures can often seem abstract and complicated: a helpful way to visualise the CO2 impact of a traditional air conditioner is through trees. Trees absorb CO2 as they grow, converting it to oxygen and sugars to produce additional wood. Beyond the sapling stage, a tree absorbs between 10 – 20 kg of CO2 annually for most of its life. Over 50 years, a single tree will have absorbed about 700 kg of CO2. This makes tree planting an excellent way to offset carbon emissions. Worldwide, many companies plant trees to reduce their emissions in order to declare themselves ‘carbon-neutral’.
What does this mean when it comes to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by air conditioning? Traditional air conditioners require 1.5kg of refrigerant gas to function. Generally, they can leak almost as much refrigerant over their lifetime: this creates a considerable amount of CO2. A single unit can be responsible for around 2,025 kg of CO2 – equivalent to that of 3 fully grown trees, and that’s assuming it uses the newer R32 refrigerant. An older model can cause an incredible 6,000kg of CO2: the equivalent of 9 fully grown trees.
The CO2 emissions resulting from electricity production dwarf these figures. With an average power consumption of 1,200 to 1,700 Watts, a traditional air conditioner could be expected to cause 10 – 20 tonnes of CO2 over a 10-year life, equivalent to 15 – 30 trees.
What can I do?
These figures show just how significant the impact of a single individual can be. If you want to reduce your carbon footprint, an excellent place to start is rethinking how you stay cool. One eco-friendly option is a portable aircon– a small, personal air conditioner that can be carried to wherever cooling is required, with no installation necessary. A personal aircon is a quiet, affordable air conditioning solution: portable air conditioners are extremely energy efficient. They provide direct, local cooling, ensuring that no energy is wasted on cooling empty areas of a room. They contain an almost negligible amount of refrigerant, further reducing their environmental impact. Other options include cross ventilating your home: opening up windows and doors during the cooler periods of the day, and closing up before it gets too hot. Another good place to start is running your air conditioner, whether it be traditional or personal, on solar panels. Finally, don’t be too quick to dismiss age-old methods of keeping cool, like planting trees to shade your home.
Thinking about your carbon footprint can often be anxiety-provoking, but it doesn’t have to be. Armed with knowledge of your emissions, you have the ability to make a positive change. Your individual choices as a consumer have the power to make a significant difference to the world around you. You don’t have to sacrifice your principles to stay comfortable over summer!