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Climate emergency: How to keep homes cool on warming planet
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Climate emergency: How to keep homes cool on warming planet

An infographic showing the projected growth in demand for air conditioners until 2050

In many cases, places, keeping cool when the mercury climbs isn’t just a matter of comfort  sweltering temperatures can affect our health, our productivity, our economiesOur survival is our goal.  

An increase of just 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels could put 2.3 billion people at risk of severe heat waves. Scientists warn that we could see this temperature rise in the 2030s if carbon emissions are not reduced. 

Hot weather is already responsible for 12,000 deaths each year. According to the World Health Organization, there could be 38,000 more deaths by 2030 annually due to heat exposure in elderly people. 

Buying an air conditioner might be a quick and easy fix, but these energy-intensive appliances are only adding to the problem.  

“We need to get out of this cycle,” Lily Riahi from the UN Environment Programme told DW. “The way that we currently cool our homes or workplaces is a major driver for climate change.”  

An infographic showing the projected growth in demand for air conditioners until 2050

By the middle of this century, the number of air conditioners will reach 5.6 million

The cooling conundrum 

Air conditioners leak damaging refrigerants that contribute to global warming. And ACs and fans also account for about 20% of the total electricity used in buildings around the worldMuch of which still comes from fossil fuels.  

As global temperatures, populations and incomes rise in countries like India and China, the number of AC units in operation worldwide could jump from nearly 2 billion today to 5.6 billion by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency.  

The agency also estimates that, without improvements to efficiency, energy demand for space cooling could triple by the middle of the century  consuming as much electricity as China and India today. 

A graphic showing the percentage of households with air conditioners around the world

According to the IEA, only 12% of the 44% who live in hot climates have an air conditioner.

Riahi, who is also a coordinator for the global Cool Coalition network working to boost sustainable cooling, says this scenario will pile massive pressure on electricity grids and ultimately hamper efforts to meet climate targets.  

By 2050, estimates say that just space cooling will account for 30-50% of peak electricity (load) in many countries. Today the average is 15%,” said Riahi. “So you’re going to have grid failures.”  

So what can be done about it?  

Air conditioning plays an important role in prosperity and economic development by allowing people in hot countries to live and work in comfort. But unless ACs become significantly more climate-friendly, the projected explosion in their numbers will pose a huge challenge.  

Air conditioning units outside a building in Hong Kong

Air conditioners use a lot of energy, accounting for about 10% of global electricity consumption

RiahiSays there’s a lack of awareness about cooling alternatives as well as financial barriers that prevent people purchasing energy-efficient ACs with low-emission refrigerants. 

AC doesn’t always have to be the most expensive air conditioner on the marketShe agreed. “It should be about how can we design our cities and buildings to reduce the demand for cooling in the first place. And it can also mean finding ways to create incentives to bring the most efficient technologies to market.” 

Cooling roofs for informal settlements

It will take more than just improving AC efficiency to survive higher temperatures and keep emissions under control. Fitting buildings with exterior shading, green roofs or applying solar reflective paint, for instance, can also limit the heat they absorb. Expanding green spaces, water areas and wind corridors in cities could help too.  

India is home of the Mahila Housing Trust is working with people in slum communities who cannot afford ACs to help them keep their homes cool. The organization focuses on low-cost measures such as painting heat-trapping corrugated tin roofs white, planting trees near homes to provide shade or installing roofs made of compressed bamboo mats, which absorb less heat.  

A woman paints her rooftop with solar reflective white paint in Ahmedabad, India

Corrugated tin roofs trap heat, which can sometimes lead to indoor temperatures that are up 5 degrees C higher than outside

Trust director Bijal Brahmbhatt says just coating roofs in solar reflective paint can make indoor temperatures drop by up to 6 C  a change residents reported was almost like having an AC. 

“The well-being levels have increased quite a bit.”She said. “Economic productivity increased by 1.5-2 hours once the temperature got reduced.” People were also able to slash their power bills because they no longer had to use fans, she added.  

Lessons from the desert 

Another project, this time in the Egyptian desert where summer temperatures can reach almost 50 C, is also tackling heat solely through smart building design. 

Architect Sarah El Battouty, founder of green building firm ECOnsult, said they’d managed to reduce building temperatures by around 10 C without mechanical solutions.


Her company is working with the Egyptian government to upgrade 4,000 rural villages, home to some 58 million people, so that they can better cope with extreme heat. But rather than bringing in high-tech solutions, El Battouty says many of the green changes were inspired by local Indigenous knowledge.  

These villages have survived. It’s because we have a deep understanding of how to adapt to harsh conditions over thousands of years,” she stated. “We see which of these solutions are viable and we integrate them  We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

This means that you can use locally available materials like porous limestone and sandstone that allow air to flow through the walls. They also lifted structures slightly off the ground to prevent heat being absorbed from below, darkened entryways, installed reflective roofs and made use of angled windows and adjustable shading to block heat while allowing light to enter. 

A view of a green building designed to help farm workers beat rising heat in Baharyia Oasis, in Egypt's Western Desert

The homes ECOnsult built in Baharyia Oasis for farmers in Egypt’s Western Desert are designed to withstand extreme heat.

“Cooling is the new frontier” 

El Battouty says there needs to be a rethink in the architecture sector so that buildings are designed to address cooling from the outset. 

“The longer it gets hot, the more people will look for solutions like air conditioning.”She replied, “Yes.” “WWe need to question the housing sector. Is it designed to reduce heat?  

Events like the ARE Housing Conference should give greater attention to the role of housing in beating heat. recent UN climate change conference in Glasgow, added El Battouty. 

“We need to see cooling as something equally important as renewable and clean energies. Cooling is the next frontier. 

Edited by Jennifer Collins

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