Air conditioners offer a refreshing escape from the summer heat and have become a staple of the 21st-century household.
Today, however, the world faces a number of issues that pertain to the environment – climate change, global warming, gas emissions and much more all pose a significant threat to the ecological balance of the planet. It’s only natural to wonder if the things around us are contributing to that. In this article, we will discuss the effect of air conditioning on our environment.
Modern properly functioning air conditioners are not bad for the environment. However, older units that still use HFCs pose significant risks to the environment when they are leaking or improperly disposed of.
When the AC unit is beyond repair and needs to be discarded it is important that it is not thrown away with general garbage and that you do not disconnect it yourself. I recommend reading my article about recycling AC units if you are facing replacing the ac unit.
Through the course of this article, we’re going to try to answer that question to the best of our abilities. If you’re looking for a short, answer, we’re sorry – the truth is that it largely depends on the air conditioning unit in question.
We’ll do our best to explain all of the factors that affect the ecological efficiency of an air conditioning unit and give you a better understanding of what makes an air conditioning unit less (or more!) of a pollutant. This will help you get a grasp on some theoretical knowledge, which you can then apply to your very own air conditioner to see how eco-friendly it truly is!
Air conditioners provide a cool, refreshing sensation through the use of hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs for short. These HFCs, which are gasses that primarily contain hydrogen, fluorine, and carbon, were introduced into the commercial market in a bid to replace Chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs.
CFCs were found to be responsible for breaching the ozone layer and so, HFCs were developed as a less ecologically harmful element. Recent research, however, found that HFCs still posed a significant threat to the environment – They combine with existing greenhouse gases and in turn, generate a warming sensation. This, subsequently, contributes to and accelerates the speed of the phenomenon known as global warming.
How bad is air conditioning for the environment?
Like we mentioned earlier, HFCs, which are the primary environmental danger of air conditioning, can be extremely harmful to the environment.
Air conditioners account for 6% of energy use in the U.S, with the number being similar across the globe when measuring residential use. From these figures, we can say while air conditioners certainly do contribute to pollution and environmental degradation, they aren’t by any means a leading source.
Furthermore, they are being seen as devices that can be further optimized in order to be more energy-efficient and run in much cleaner ways. When the research regarding the harmful impacts caused by HFCs came to light, an international convention was called.
Every country that signed the Paris agreement, which was an agreement for global cooperation in the fight against climate change, made an appearance and mutually agreed on the need to curtail HFC emissions.
In an amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which formalized the global fight against CFCs and placed bans and limits on CFC emissions for all participating countries, the representatives that met decided to place a higher emphasis on phasing out the use of HFCs.
Ultimately, they arrived at the goal of eliminating HFCs use by the year 2050.
Since then, numerous manufacturers and designers have been attempting to either completely or partially replace the use of HFCs in air conditioning units, which is why the negative impact(s) that a unit may have largely depends on the model and make.
Does an AC cause Pollution?
Modern air conditioners do not cause pollution. However, units that are somewhat old (pre-2010) and start leaking can emit a high number of HFCs, which tend to contribute directly to air pollution and create a warming effect that accelerates the rate at which global warming takes place.
In fact, the U.N issued a report that stated that the “warming potential per molecule of HFC is 11,700 times more powerful than carbon dioxide”.This alluded to the fact that, if used at the rate at which HFCs were being used in 2010, it could have easily become the most threatening element to environmental stability, overtaking carbon dioxide.
For these reasons, units manufactured after 2011 work under newer regulations, which certify them according to the number of HFCs they emit. Once again, this depends largely on the model and make, as well as the country the unit is being used in. The European Union (EU), for instance, banned the use of HFC-emitting units in 2011. As a result, it is likely that a unit purchased after this date causes much lower levels of pollution.
How Much Does Air Conditioning Contribute to Global Warming?
As we mentioned earlier, a study of the U.S’ total energy consumption showed that air conditioning contributed 6% towards the country’s total energy consumption.
This was further clarified by the fact that this figure included both residential and commercial use of AC-s. Globally, the U.S accounts for nearly 23% of total AC usage. From these figures, we can draw some meaningful conclusions – air conditioning, by no means, is a primary cause of global warming, and rather, is far down the list in terms of direct causes of global warming.
When compared to things like manufacturing, processing, and transport, the impact of AC-s is small. This, coupled with the fact that a number of advancements have been made in the technology behind ACs and international commitments to eliminating the use of HFCs. Combined with reduced energy consumption of the newer air conditioners makes ACs one of the lesser factors in terms of global warming.
That being said, this principle appears to be more accurate in some parts of the world than others. In developing countries like China and India, local manufacturers aren’t subject to strict regulation or a ban on HFCs, like in the EU or the U.S.
Instead, manufacturers look at those markets as goldmines and are entering a bidding war to provide air conditioning at the cheapest possible price. Naturally, this creates problems, as clean and efficient performance isn’t the desired outcome.
In these countries, HFC emissions are higher as AC units are much cheaper. Here, they contribute slightly more to global warming.
What Is an Eco-Friendly Air Conditioner?
Following the Montreal Protocol, many manufacturers have been investing heavily in alternatives to HFCs. One such example includes the use of hydrofluoroolefins, or HFOs for short.
According to Ken Gayer, a vice president at Honeywell, HFOs break down in a matter of days and won’t have time to trap heat in the atmosphere to cause global warming.
Apart from HFOs, other advancements include a water-based, eco-friendly air conditioner developed by a team of researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS). This system is allegedly 40% more efficient than traditional units, and uses water-based cooling technology.
“Instead of relying on HCFCs, the newly developed air conditioner can cool a room using rainwater. It needs one liter of water to cool a master bedroom unit for 15 to 20 hours”, said Chua.
While regular air conditioners expel hot air as a byproduct, the prototype releases humid air that is still likely to be cooler than ambient temperatures. This removes the need for refrigerants like HFCs or CFCs, making it a much cleaner unit as well.
Most notably, this unit also makes the water reusable – “the novel system generates potable drinking water while it cools ambient air.” This represents one of the greatest leaps in the field and offers a clear path forward towards producing energy-efficient and clean air conditioning units.
To get a better understanding of how exactly this unit works, check out this page.
So, there you go! The eco-friendliness, cleanliness and efficiency of an air conditioning unit largely pertains to the model and make. We’ve listed enough information for you to apply to your own AC unit to determine just how eco-friendly it is!