Increased AC use in Europe Causes More Greenhouse Gas Emissions

According to new research reported in Environmental Science and Policy, in the absence of sufficient and focused policies, several households will depend on air conditioners to adjust to climate change, thereby producing increased greenhouse gas emissions.

For the first time, the research, under the leadership of Enrica De Cian, professor at University Ca’ Foscari Venice and researcher at the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change, determines the dynamics which makes households to use AC and thermal insulation in eight countries, of which five were European countries, from 1990 to 2040.

The research is based on a survey executed by the OECD over a sample of European households, together with climatologic data. Apart from the significant regional differences, and the increase of AC in the cities, the research has also shown that more than the income of the head of the family, a key factor for deciding to have an AC in the house is actually the family’s wealth.

The presence of sensitive people at home, like the old people and children, is also an important factor. Other important factors include the property, the typology, and the state of the house, as well as the ecological awareness of the head of the family and their practice of implementing energy-saving acts.

Europeans have globally a low inclination for installing Air Conditioners in their home (20% of households on average) if compared to countries like Japan (90%) and Australia (72%) which should reach 100% in 2040. Climatic and cultural differences, even within the same country, lead to very different adoption rates across households today, and for the next 20 years.

Enrica De Cian, Professor, University Ca’ Foscari Venice

The research revealed that from 2011 to 2040, there would be a mean increase of 4.3% in the number of households that purchase a new AC throughout the five European countries. This is more due to urbanization (three-fourths) than climate change (one-fourth).

Generally, France has a slight tendency toward AC, for both climatic and cultural reasons, and more liking for thermal insulation, with 50% of its residences currently equipped. In 1990, the percentage of households with AC was nearly zero, whereas from 2000, it has been observed that there is a slow but steady increase, attaining 13% in 2011 and 17.3% in 2040.

Like France, nearly 60% of the households in The Netherlands are currently equipped with some kind of thermal insulation. With the increase in the number of hot days by 60% from 1990 to 2011, there has also been an increase in the number of AC in the households: from 0.5% in 1990 to 14% in 2014, and the research estimates a worrying 19% for 2040.

In contrast, Spain, the only Mediterranean country target of the research, satisfactorily exhibits various distributions and characteristics. Furthermore, owing to the more hot days persisting in the country, the 5% of households with an AC in 1990 will become 50% in 2040, while thermal insulation reaches only one-third of the residences and will remain constant.

Despite the fact that Sweden, which is a North-European country, is usually less exposed to continual hot days, the number of households with AC has currently increased by 30 times from 2005. The research has estimated that it will reach over one-fifth in 2040. Also, this is one of the countries with an increased disposition toward thermal insulation, with nearly one household in two in 2040.

Among the European countries analyzed, Switzerland, owing to its different territorial, cultural, and climatic characteristics, is currently the one with fewer AC equipped; however, in the next two decades, these will increase by 50% reaching 15% of the households in 2020.

Currently, the EU is lagging in its planned goals to reduce heavily greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and 2030. Indeed, on average, new buildings consume 40% less energy than old ones, but only 1% of the current stock is of this kind in Europe.

As highlighted by a number of studies, improving thermal insulation of buildings through the adoption of building codes, is among the most effective policy instruments for reducing residential energy consumption and reduce adaptation needs for cooling. New policies should also seek to increase the environmental awareness of the public, as we show that this is an important factor for deciding to install AC in your home and choose how much to use it.

Filippo Pavanello, Study Co-Author and Researcher, University Ca’ Foscari Venice

This new research is the joint effort of a group of scientists financially supported by the European Research Council and at present based in Venice at Ca’ Foscari University and at the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change.

The same scientists are investigating the broader theme of adaptation to climate change due to energy and seeking to advise on how it will be feasible to possibly break this dangerous cycle, where more emissions imply more climate changes, causing an increase in the energy use for adaptation and hence more emissions.


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