Climate Change: How our need to be cool is killing the planet

Researchers predict that global energy needs will increase 25% by 2050, mainly anticipated to arise from cooling and air-conditioning usage


                            Climate Change: How our need to be cool is killing the planet

As the climate heats up and the number of hot days goes up each year, increased energy needs to power air-conditioning could make a bad situation worse by ramping up greenhouse gas emissions, warn researchers.

Several of the consequences of climate change are well reported by studies, such as severe storms, rising seas, droughts and floods, and increasing numbers of heat-related illness and deaths.

However, a new study projects another troubling outcome: a significant increase in global energy needs—25% by 2050—primarily anticipated to arise from cooling needs and air-conditioning usage. 

“Rising ambient temperatures are expected to increase hot season cooling demand. In tropical areas, for example, as the climate warms, it is simply going to get hotter. For people in tropical areas to keep cool, they are going to have to use more electricity. Despite regional variation in outcomes, we find a pervasive increase in the demand for electricity to satisfy increased cooling needs in multiple sectors,” says the research team from Boston University, US; International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg; National Center for Atmospheric Research, US; and Ca’ Foscari University of Venice in Italy. 

“By 2050, even modest warming of our climate could increase the world’s energy needs by as much as 25%. And if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated, we could demand up to 58% more energy than would be needed in a stable climate. The findings underscore the need for rapidly deploying zero-carbon options for generating energy so that climate change itself - and all the air-conditioning that will be used to cool a warmer world - doesn’t end up accelerating the demand for more fossil fuel-generated electricity,” the researchers added. 

The researchers say that by 2050, even modest warming of our climate could increase the world’s energy needs by as much as 25%. They add that if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated, we could demand up to 58% more energy than would be needed in a stable climate. (Getty Images)

The researchers predict that demand for electricity is very likely to rise across much of the world.

According to the analysis, published in Nature Communications, regionally, demands for energy could increase by more than 50% in the tropics and southern parts of the US, while Southern Europe and China could see increases higher than 25%. The findings also state that the total energy consumption might decline in northern Europe, Russia, Canada, and the US Pacific Northwest, but by a much smaller amount than the increases projected for other locations.

A previous study, findings of which were reported by MEA Worldwide (MEAWW), Americans will experience dangerously hot days as climate change will lead to a significant increase in the frequency and severity of extreme heat across the US.

In the latest study, the team coupled statistical models of energy demand with global temperature projections under warming scenarios - simulated by 21 independent climate models and five different scenarios for economic and population growth - the results showed substantial increases in energy needs. However, understanding that calculation is complicated, says the team, because the influence of climate change on an area’s energy demand depends on the interaction of two uncertain drivers: how the area’s population and income are projected to grow, and how its prevailing local temperature patterns are projected to change.

According to the calculations, by 2050, the global demand for energy resulting from socio-economic development will be two to three times as compared to what it is today, growing by a factor of 1.4 to 2.7 in industrialized nations, and by a factor of 2 to 4 in poorer, but rapidly developing countries in the tropics. Moderate warming would increase the global baseline amount of energy demands by 11% to 17%, while vigorous warming would increase it by 25% to 58%, it states. 

Their findings, says the team, also highlight two critical unanswered questions: how much of the additional demand will be satisfied by increases in energy supplies versus behavioral changes like conservation, and whether producing the needed extra energy might add to emissions of greenhouse gases, setting in motion a vicious circle that could accelerate global warming. 

“How we choose to generate the additional electricity for cooling will also have big implications for the climate. The International Energy Agency estimated that in 2018, two-thirds of global energy needs were met by oil and gas, while less than 10% was provided by solar and wind. Hydro and nuclear energy produced about 25% of global electricity. That is the focus of our research right now. What happens will not just influence the climate, it will influence energy markets, and it will influence the ways we think about energy policy. It can change the economic and political relationships between countries,” says Ian Sue Wing, a Boston University College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of earth and environment.

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