Making the world hotter: India's expected air-conditioning explosion
BEHROR, India: Ratan Kumar once battled India’s brutal summers with damp bedsheets and midnight baths. Now he is among millions upon millions of Indians using air-conditioning – helping make the world hotter still.
With India’s air-conditioning market expected to explode from 30 million to a billion units by 2050, the world’s second-most populous country could become the planet’s top user of electricity for cooling.
Charts showing the use of air conditioners in the world, according to IEA. (Graphic: AFP/Laurence Chu)
India is already the number-three spewer of greenhouse gases, burning through 800 million tonnes of coal every year – and the predicted air-conditioning boom could mean the country would have to triple its electricity production to meet demand, experts say.
But for the hundreds of millions of Indians enduring scorching, even deadly, summers, the air-conditioners are a godsend.
“Summers make our life miserable,” said Kumar, a 48-year-old laundryman earning US$225 a month who this year installed an air-conditioning unit in his two-room house in the town of Behror in the baking-hot desert state of Rajasthan.
“Sleeping for few hours is a struggle after a day’s hard work,” the father-of-two told AFP, running a hot iron over crumpled clothes. “I am not rich but we all aspire to have a comfortable life.”
Vast swathes of India endure a gruelling four-month long summer, and the mercury has been inching ever higher in recent years.
In 2016, the Earth’s hottest on record, temperatures in the Indian town of Phalodi soared to 51 degrees Celsius, the highest recorded in India.
The brutal heat can melt tarmac on the roads and puts millions of people at risk, with nearly 2,500 victims perishing from sunstroke in 2015.
‘EVERYONE DESERVES AN AIR-CONDITIONER’
Currently just five per cent of Indian households are equipped with air-conditioners compared to 90 per cent in the United States and 60 percent in China, up from virtually zero 30 years ago.
With India’s AC market expected to explode, the country could become the planet’s top user of electricity for cooling. (Photo: AFP/Money Sharma)
But India’s air-conditioning market is catching up fast, seeing double-digit growth in the last decade as incomes rise and electricity supplies become more reliable.
“It’s no longer a luxury product but a necessity,” said Kanwal Jeet Jawa, India head of Japanese manufacturer Daikin, whose factory in Rajasthan churns out 1.2 million air-conditioning units per year.
“ACs increase productivity and life expectancy. Everyone deserves an AC,” he told AFP.
The irony is that as humans try to stay cool, the refrigerants inside air-conditioning units and the generation of electricity needed to power the appliances are exacerbating global warming.
In addition, studies – including by the World Health Organisation and UN-Habitat – show that the heat-generating motors inside air-conditioning units can themselves push up temperatures in urban areas, where the appliances are widely used, by a degree or more.
A man stands under the water of a fountain in New Delhi, India, during a heat wave in May 2016. (Photo: AFP/Roberto Schmidt)
As demand grows, the amount of energy consumed globally by air-conditioning units could triple by 2050, requiring new electricity capacity equivalent to the combined current capacity of the US, the EU and Japan, the International Energy Agency says.
India currently generates about two-thirds of its electricity with coal and gas, and despite ambitious plans for renewable energy the country is set to remain highly dependent on hydrocarbons for decades to come.
One possible source of hope is if Indians buy more energy-efficient AC units, and manufacturers like Daikin are promoting these over older technologies.
An Indian woman and a child sleep under an umbrella in Kolkata on May 27, 2015 during the heatwave that swept India and Pakistan. (Photo: AFP/Dibyangshu Sarkar)
But they are pricier, and Indian consumers that have AC are slow to upgrade, partly due to an ingrained culture of repairing devices rather than buying new ones.
In June the Indian government issued an “advisory” to AC makers to keep the default setting at 24 degrees Celsius to save billions of units of electricity and reduce emissions.
But for now the measure is not mandatory, and with many people expressing outrage it is unclear how effective it will be.
As the latest international climate change powwow COP24 gets under way in Poland this week, Behror electronics store owner Ram Vikas Yadav says his customers have bigger worries than global warming.
Vehicles driving along a road are seen through heat haze in Chandigarh, India, April 20, 2016. (Photo: Reuters/Ajay Verma)
“People want air-conditioners to keep their homes cool,” Yadav, who says his sales have rocket 150 percent every year, told AFP. “This year I sold 300 air-conditioners.”
Yadav said rural families in particular, attracted by aggressive marketing by manufacturers, are ditching traditional ways to cool their homes.
These include ceiling fans or air coolers – a fan-run device that blows cool air off water-soaked pads, which are often a haven for disease-carrying mosquitoes.
Laundryman Kumar too feels the summers have become hotter than usual in recent years, pushing him to invest in AC.
“Scientists keep on saying such things but I can at least have some sound sleep now.”