By Anders Lorenzen
It is ironic and a Catch-22. Many parts of the world are battling heat waves that are likely to have been made worse by a warming planet, and scientists predict that such events will be more severe in the future due to climate change. At the same time, the demand for air conditioning increases and thereby pumps even more CO2 into the atmosphere.
In Texas, for instance, demand for electricity is hitting record levels as people crank up their air conditioning units to get relief for the relentless heat. So says the state’s grid operator. To keep up demand, utilities are buying electricity from all available sources which are thus boosting electricity prices. On Thursday the 19th of July demand reached 73,259 megawatts (MW), topping the prior all-time high of 72,192 MW, recorded only the day before.
In a recent study by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW), the US, the uptake of demand on air conditioning could have serious consequences for human health. The researchers forecast that annually as many as a thousand additional deaths in the Eastern United States will be caused by elevated levels of air pollution; this driven by increased use of fossil fuels to cool the buildings where humans live and work. Needless to say, the extra fossil fuels required would also further exacerbate climate change.
The reason is that, while many rich countries in Europe are rapidly moving away from coal, in the US it still represents a major source of electricity production.
Health-wise it is also a Catch 22 situation, as there is no doubt that air conditioning improves the quality of life for many people. Jonathan Patz, a senior author of the study and UW-Madison professor of environmental studies and population health sciences, admits this: “there is no question that air conditioning does and will save lives”, he said. Explaining further he said: “Heat waves are increasing and increasing in intensity. We will have more cooling demand requiring more electricity. But if our nation continues to rely on coal-fired power plants for some of our electricity, each time we turn on the air conditioning we’ll be fouling the air, causing more sickness and even deaths.”
The analysis combines projections from five different models to forecast increased summer energy use in a warmer world. It examines how that would affect power consumption from fossil fuels, air quality and, consequently, will affect human health looking just a few decades into the future. The study concludes that air pollution gets worse with climate change, and highlights problems adapting to the future climate.
The report is adamant that climate change is here, but if we are going to continue to use and adopt those fossil fuels which caused this mess in the first place, we are only going to create more problems for ourselves. Therefore the authors say we need to switch to more sustainable energy sources, such as solar and wind, as well as deploying more energy-efficient air conditioning technology to deal with the huge energy footprint for air conditioning units. If we change nothing then both climate change and air pollution are going to get worse, concluded David Abel, the lead author of the report, and a UW-Madison graduate student in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies’ Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment. He added, “There are consequences for adapting to future climate change”.