The Dirty Secrets Behind AC
After another weekend of oppressive temperatures in the lower 90s here in Western New York, today a cool breeze in the morning felt like the most precious of gifts.
Each time I stepped outside, I took a moment to appreciate the refreshing sensation of the breeze blowing against my face. I would take a deep breath like a swimmer submerging from a deep dive.
To me, this breeze is so much better than the artificial cold that air and mechanical rumble air conditioners produce. Don’t get me wrong, I have been grateful for it with the many hot days this month has come with already. It certainly offered some much-appreciated relief after any activity outdoors and when it was time to get some shuteye at night; however, personally it never seems like air conditioning can really satisfy the natural temperature my body needs.
It turns out, the planet probably isn’t the biggest fan of air conditioning either. But, COVID-19 might like it because studies have shown it can help spread this lethal virus.
So, for this blog post, I’d like to get hyper focused on AC’s impact on our natural environment and our chances to get and spread COVID—and how we can learn to control its usage to mitigate both. So, let’s dive in!
What’s the Deal with AC and Climate Change?
As you probably know if you’ve checked your energy bill in the Western New York area lately, AC uses quite a bit of energy. In 2019, around 12% of the world’s CO2 emissions from energy usage could be traced back to air conditioning (Quartz). In the U.S. and India, AC makes up about 23% of electricity consumption.
But it’s not even the amount of electricity that air conditioning units use that really can cause havoc for the environment. They, along with refrigerators, also produce their own greenhouse gas called hydrofluorocarbons. And here’s the really bad news about hydrofluorocarbons (other than it’s a long word to say and remember): it is thousands of times more potent of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (The Conversation). That basically means it’s thousands of times more effective at trapping the sun’s heart in our atmosphere, warming the planet.
The good news (other than that HFCs is an acronym for hydrofluorocarbons) is that on January 3, 2019, 65 countries ratified the The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. The countries who signed the Amendment committed to reducing their use of HFCs by more than 80 percent over the next 30 years by replacing them with alternatives that have less adverse impacts to the environment (IISD).
Luckily there are already plenty of alternatives out there and being further developed, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). The alternatives include hydrocarbons, ammonia (R- 717), water and carbon dioxide (CO2 or R-744). Interestingly, climate activists’ old foe carbon dioxide might be the best option here because hydrocarbons are highly flammable and not great for air quality while ammonia can be very toxic—the argument for carbon dioxide in this case is that it would result in much less heat being trapped in the atmosphere since it’s a weaker greenhouse gas than HFCs (The Conversation). I think this could be all the more reason to reduce other major carbon dioxide emissions, such as burning coal and manufacturing cement (What’s Your Impact?).
Since people do seem to be great at burning CO2 for other purposes, why aren’t we using it as a refrigerant, too? You may have recognized the Montreal Protocol that the Kigali Amendment is attached to, and there’s a story behind that. HFCs were initially thought to be a more ozone-friendly replacement to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are the ozone-destroying compounds that were widely used in packaging, refrigeration, and perhaps most famously aerosol cans like hairspray (The Conversation).
It turned out the replacement for CFCs, HFCs, were not as detrimental to the ozone layer, but they could swifty speed up the impacts of climate change. The three most common types of HFCs trap 1,370 to 4,180 times more heat than the same amount of the greenhouse gas CO2 (The Conversation).
The Kigali Amendment was a step in the right direction to preventing these potent greenhouse gases. The UN reported in a press release that if embraced by more governments and societies around the globe, the amendment could prevent 0.4 degrees Celsius of warming this century (UNEnvironment.org).
That might not sound like much, United Nations scientists say 2 degrees Celsius of warming is the “magic number” governments around the globe should aim to avoid by limiting the burning of fossil fuels—if that much warming is reached, the world’s food supply could be greatly impacted by more powerful droughts and heat waves, in addition to seas rising several feet and flooding many coastal cities around the world, including in the U.S. (PBS).
Perhaps unsurprising given the environmental track record of our current leader, it doesn’t look like the U.S. is on the list of the countries that have signed the Kigali Amendment to date (which you can find here: https://kigali-amendment.openclimatedata.net/).
So What Can We Do?
We need systematic change, rather than individual action, to save our planet from the worst effects of climate change. This has been well documented—however, so has the power of individual actions to inspire systematic change (Forbes). A great example of this is Greta Thunberg (who you can read more about in one of my past posts after I saw her speak live in Los Angeles).
So, supporting the Kigali Amendment and pushing the U.S. to sign it is one significant step you can take.
From a consumer standpoint, look for Energy-Star Certified Appliances if you are in the market for a new air conditioner--it can use 8% less energy than units without this certification (ReWire).
A dehumidifier might also be a great alternative to AC because often humidity can make temperatures feel much hotter than they actually are (ReWire).
What’s the Deal with COVID-19?
Glad you asked! (Or I asked myself?) So normally I’d just focus this post on the environment, but since we are in the midst of a global pandemic, as a PSA I’m going to just point out that AC is also possibly spreading this deadly virus, according to some initial studies.
One of the earliest is from the time of the outbreak in Wuhan, China in January 2020 found an outbreak of three family clusters could be traced to a restaurant with air conditioning (CDC). The location of an asymptomatic COVID-19 carrier in front of an AC unit lined up with the location of 9 diners who later tested positive for COVID in terms of the direction of the AC’s airflow (Health).
This study has a very small sample size so it should be taken with a grain of salt. However, Health does cite some expert sources that say with the way AC units work, in public places they can easily push water droplets from positive COVID carriers in the direction of those without the illness, thus causing them to catch it.
The recent major COVID-19 outbreak in the south may even be rooted in the increased use of air-conditioners with the hotter summer weather, a Harvard infectious disease expert reported late last month (The Harvard Gazette). This also seems to be true of India, where air conditioner sales increased recently along with COVID-19 cases surging to 500,000.
I Want to Stay Cool and Not Spread COVID-19—and Worsen Climate Change
Me too! OK so luckily Health reports that if you practice social distancing, wash your hands, and avoid touching your face, it’s OK to spend time inside at public places—it’s just a good idea to be aware of the risk of possible airflow patterns within an establishment.
Also, getting outside or increasing inside ventilation can also help with COVID’s spread due to AC, according to the recent report from The Harvard Gazette. Germicidal lamps, which use a type of UV light to deactivate the DNA of viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens, may also be an effective way to stop the virus’s spread indoors--one study shows they could be more than 10 times more effective than improving ventilation and using room air cleaners (The Harvard Gazette).
In addition to staying informed on systematic changes to prevent the use of HFCs, a few things you can do right now include:
A few more quick tips to reduce your AC and production of HFCs include:
Close your window blinds from 12 - 4 p.m. when the sun is strongest (Rewire)
Change out incandescent bulbs with LEDs that produce less heat (Rewire)
Use window fans instead that push cold air from outside into your home (Rewire)
Try to place an air conditioning unit out of the sun, ideally facing north or covered by a shady shrub or tree, to help it work more effectively (the Spruce)
Do chores that might heat you and your space up for when the sun is less intense, such as earlier or later in the day, to avoid the temptation to crank the AC (the Spruce)
Set your Thermostat to 78 degrees Fahrenheit which the Department of Energy recommends, and turn it up even higher when you are away or don’t use it (energy.gov)
Open windows at night to circulate cool air and then close them up during the day (a thanks to my friend Amanda for recommending this one, and for saying that this really works in her house!)
A good reason to tone back AC usage is that experts fear a surge in residential demand from more individuals staying home due to COVID-19 could lead to more brownouts and even blackouts (WNYC).
So, toning down AC use could not only help save the planet in the long term, but also prevent the awful more pressing inconvenience of losing power and thus AC on a sweltering summer afternoon.
And perhaps COVID-19 can be an opportunity for us to take a look at AC units in terms of their impact on our present health as a society as well--what other bacteria and viruses could they circulate? Wow, I’m sorry, as if 2020 needed anything else to make us worry…
On the plus side, a medical expert did tell Time that AC units can filter out harmful pollutants from the outdoor environment, and perhaps most importantly they can be life-saving when faced with deadly heat waves (Time)...however by fueling climate change, they can be a source of these heat waves, and as the planet continues to heat up, they’ll likely become ever-more popular.
BUT I’ve been aiming to have a more positive outlook despite all of this—the pandemic and the perhaps even greater threat to humanity that climate change poses.
I’m learning that being able to handle more challenging and serious problems in life with a cool head and optimistic outlook is something that at least we can apply to many of the outrageous issues 2020 has thrown our way and hopefully the challenges of climate change yet to come.
And it also helps to take a breath when finally, after weeks of intolerable heat or headlines, we finally get some sort of relief.