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article imageStudy shows how air-conditioners will make a warming world worse

By Karen Graham     Jul 4, 2018 in Environment
With more frequent episodes of extreme heat around the globe - the cooling effects of air-conditioning are needed more than ever to relieve heat stress and exposure to worsening pollution. But this is making the problem even worse.
Writing on Wednesday in a special climate change issue of the journal PLOS Medicine, a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison are making some dire predictions for our near future.
The study warns that with the increased use of air-conditioning in homes and buildings as we try to find relief from the ever-increasing temperatures, we will actually be further degrading air quality and compounding the air pollution problem and in turn, our health.
The researchers forecast that by mid-century, there will be an increase of an additional 1,000 deaths annually in the Eastern United States alone due to elevated levels of air pollution fueled by an increased use of fossil fuels needed to cool buildings where we live and work.
“What we found is that air pollution will get worse,” explains David Abel, the lead author of the new report and a UW-Madison graduate student in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies’ Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment. “There are consequences for adapting to future climate change.”
An example of a feedback loop
Five different models were used to analyze projections of increased summer energy use in a warming world. The research team wanted to find out how this scenario would affect power consumption from fossil fuels, along with air quality, and in turn, the health of humans over the next few decades.
Jonathan Patz, a senior author of the study and a UW–Madison professor of environmental studies and population health sciences says there is no doubt that air-conditioning will save lives during periods of extremes of heat. And it goes without saying that as heat waves are projected to increase in frequency and intensity, we will be forced to use more cooling devices.
However, he warns that the increased use of air-conditioning powered by fossil fuels will result in a trade-off. As ZME Science notes, this is an excellent example of a feedback loop: greenhouse gas emissions cause summer temperatures to get hotter and hotter. We turn to air-conditioners to cool off which uses more energy and increases greenhouse gas emissions.
“We’re trading problems,” says Patz, an expert on climate change and human health. “Heat waves are increasing and increasing in intensity. We will have more cooling demand requiring more electricity. But if our nation continues to rely on coal-fired power plants for some of our electricity, each time we turn on the air conditioning we’ll be fouling the air, causing more sickness and even deaths.”
Air conditioners on a building in Moscow  part of a worldwide demand for cooling systems that is exp...
Air conditioners on a building in Moscow, part of a worldwide demand for cooling systems that is expected to tripple over the next 30 years
Adapting to climate change won't be easy
Humans have learned that when adapting to a certain situation, we often end up making things worse or at least, end of creating another problem just as bad. And while it is natural for an individual to want to cool off when they are hot as all get out, when everyone is trying to cool off, this can create problems.
The researchers emphasize the need for us to shift from fossil fuel produced energy and embrace renewables. “The answer is clean energy,” concludes Abel. “That is something we can control that will help both climate change and future air pollution. If we change nothing, both are going to get worse.”
More about Climate change, airconditioners, negative feedback loop, Greenhouse gas emissions, eastern us
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