The Threat from Air Conditioning
|July 9, 2012||Posted by Fred Foldvary under Editorials|
Pollution from ever greater air cooling is accelerating global warming. With greater wealth in developing economies such as India, people are spending more on comfort goods. Since it gets quite hot in India, China, and other developing economies, people there want relief from the heat. They buy air conditioners.
The problem for the world is that air conditioners generate pollution. As it became recognized that CFC chemicals from air conditioning were destroying the earth’s ozone layer, a treaty called the Montreal Protocol was created in 1987 to limit the damage. The ozone layer in the atmosphere blocks ultraviolet radiation, and a thinner ozone layer lets in cancer-causing rays. The treaty replaced CFCs with HFC and HCFC chemicals that do less damage to the ozone. The treaty has been successful, as the ozone layer is now regenerating.
However, these replacement gases go into the atmosphere and accelerate global warming. As these chemicals reflect heat back to the earth, they are 2000 times more potent for the greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide. It has been estimated that a quarter of global warming will come from air conditioning by 2050.
Cooling chemicals which are both ozone and climate friendly have been developed, but regulations prevent them from being sold. These gases have some problems, such as being flammable or toxic. Blocked from producing these neutral coolants, companies are instead producing the HFCs that cause more global warming.
When the 1987 treaty was established, there was very little air conditioning outside the developed countries. Now demand for air conditioning is accelerating, as many houses in India and other tropical areas have at least one air conditioner, and some have several. An air conditioner sticking out of a window then becomes a status symbol. Sweltering children see them advertised on TV, and then cry until the parents buy one.
Cooling also contributes to better production, as for example, food in supermarkets can be kept chilled. Most of the air conditioners are now being produced in developing economies such as China.
The most common coolant used is HCFC-22. US law prohibits the sale of new air conditioners that use that contain the chemical, but not the sale of the chemical for use in conditioners.
The Montreal Protocol should be amended to phase out HFCs. The chiefs of developing countries such as China, India, and Brazil oppose such an amendment because replacement chemicals would be more costly.
The most effective way to limit pollution is to include the pollution cost in the price. Instead of regulating the quantities and types of chemicals, the Montreal Protocol should eliminate restrictions and instead, require a compensation charge proportional to the total environmental damage. Companies would then be able to calculate the cost of the various coolants, and shift to those with the least cost. That would be the most efficient way to rapidly phase out the damaging coolants.
With neutral coolants, the people in the tropics would enjoy air conditioning without harming the planet, or else paying compensation for any damage. Economists call charges that compensate for negative effects a “Pigovian tax,” after the economist Arthur Pigou, who pioneered the study of negative external effects.
Developing countries have no good excuse for not implementing pollution taxes in general. These governments impose taxes that reduce output and investment, so they would not impose any additional economic burden by shifting from taxes on production to taxes on pollution. Indeed, when a government fails to tax pollution, it subsidizes the polluters and their customers, providing them with the privilege of not paying the full cost.
Once again, ignorance combines with political clout to prevent optimal policy, but in the case of air conditioning, ironically, the pollution will air-condition the earth’s atmosphere and oceans to ever greater heat, a spiral of more heat, then more air conditioning, then more global heat. The end result will be hell on earth.