Our unsustainable and unfair desire for being cool

When the temperature goes up, we reach for that thermostat. But the more we cool down, the more the planet warms up.

Global demand for air-conditioning is climbing, rapidly. We are going to see another 4 billion systems installed by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency. And that will drive global energy demand right up making air-conditioning a leading contributor to climate change.

Air-conditioning has revolutionised the way that we live and work. Mechanical air-conditioning was first invented to control humidity in a printing factory (1902) and from there the benefits to human comfort were discovered.

We now have air-conditioners in our homes, workplaces, shops, cars, public transport, schools….pretty much every space imaginable.

We’ve lost sight of sensible design that can naturally cool

Trees and natural ground cover reduce urban heat island (@jeremybishop)

Trees and natural ground cover reduce urban heat island (@jeremybishop)

The average home isn’t built to maximise natural cooling and heating. Elements such as orientation of the house, materials used, eaves, insulation and natural ventilation were put to the side in place of cheap construction for decades.

Poorly planned subdivisions and McMansions have reduced the backyard and natural shading and cooling that vegetation brings.

This is changing, but it is such a shame how many homes we have that don’t consider these factors because they can’t be easily changed.

For some inspiration see Josh’s House, built using the typical construction materials that go into everyday homes. It cost a marginal amount more to build, but has no air-conditioning, costs less to run and provides a comfortable living environment.

Being comfortable comes at a significant cost, we are at a tipping point

Decades of research have gone into finding how to create the ideal temperature and indoor environment. One in which we can sleep best, work productively and be consistently comfortable. Can you imagine heading to work on a 38 degree day without air-conditioning?

This research in itself highlights the absolute inequality of cooling. We forget that there are millions of people who don’t have this comfort.

Africa has some of the hottest environments in the world, and only 5% of people have air-conditioners (compared to 90% in the US).

This inequality is also prevalent domestically. Whilst we flick on the AC to 20 degrees during a heatwave, there are many vulnerable members of the community suffering, such as the homeless, elderly and low income.

There’s a lot of pressure on government and energy providers to reduce energy costs, but we also have to reduce our comfort demands. Once we are accustomed to air-conditioning it is very difficult to adapt to a non-conditioned environment.

Our demand for comfort is particularly unsustainable in the workplace. We aren’t as attached to reducing energy use at work, somebody else pays that bill.

There are also many inefficiencies in commercial buildings. There is nothing worse than going into an office on a 35 degree day and seeing people in long sleeves shivering due to the indoor temperature. Air-conditioners in workplaces can be particularly hard to control (a number of reasons like over-sized systems, not maintained appropriately, changes from original design of the space etc).

Summer heatwaves (Image from @maudcorrea)

Summer heatwaves (Image from @maudcorrea)

How can we shift our comfort demands?