Millions of People Still Need Air Conditioning, Which Could Create a Huge Climate Problem

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The risks of extreme heat don’t impact us all equally. Around the world, more than one billion people are especially threatened by a lack of cooling technology—especially as climate change causes temperatures to rise even further.

A new report out Monday from Sustainable Energy for All, a nonprofit launched by a former United Nations secretary general in 2011, highlights the need to expand access to cooling technologies (like air conditioners and fridges) in countries like Brazil, India, and Sudan. Cooling not only keeps peoples’ body temperatures stable; it helps preserve food and medicines that people rely on.

“In a world facing continuously rising temperatures, access to cooling is not a luxury. It’s essential for everyday life,” said Rachel Kyte, Sustainable Energy for All CEO, in a press release. “It guarantees safe cold supply chains for fresh produce, safe storage of life-saving vaccines, and safe work and housing conditions.”


The report was supported by the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program, which exists to meet the goals of the Kigali Amendment, an international agreement to help phase out climate-warming hydrofluorocarbons used in refrigeration and air conditioning.

It’s no surprise, then, that the report also highlights how air conditioning is a double-edged sword. Until the electricity that drives it is produced using clean energy, its production results in climate warming greenhouse gases and potentially deadly air pollution.

Cooling already accounts for 10 percent of our global warming, per the report. And that number is likely to rise. Currently, an estimated 2.3 billion middle-class people around the world may only be able to afford less efficient ACs.

It’s a catch 22—so long as we rely on dirty energy sources.

“We must meet these [cooling] needs in an energy efficient way and without using ozone-damaging substances,” Kyte said. “If not, the risks to life, health and the planet are significant.”


That’s a fact: Over the weekend, a heatwave in Japan killed at least six. Last week, a heatwave killed about 70 people. With climate change, the risk of dangerous heat waves grows. By 2100, deadly heat waves could threaten 74 percent of people on the planet if we continue with business-as-usual emissions, per a 2017 study.

More people need cooling, and cooling must go green. I’m sure my family members in tropical El Salvador, where air conditioners are a luxury despite temperatures that average around 75 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, would agree.