When it comes to global warming, cooling systems like air conditioners and refrigerators usually don’t come to mind. But according to the U.S. Department of Energy, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) are responsible for 40% of all energy consumption in buildings.
Additionally, the International Energy Agency (IEA) revealed that air conditioning alone used about 13% of all electricity in the world. It also produces 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually. The Guardian pointed out that that’s the same amount of carbon dioxide India produces every year. And India is the third greatest carbon emitter in the world.
The point is, HVAC impacts environmental sustainability in a bit way. To learn more about how cooling systems specifically impact environmental sustainability, I spoke with Liam Berryman, the CEO of Nelumbo, an advanced surface-modifications startup that primarily focuses on innovation in the HVAC market.
The Cooling Problem is Cyclical
As the planet gets warmer, more people and subsequently, more products, are going to need cooling. But of course, this rising demand for air conditioning and refrigeration will also increase emissions. This rather cyclical processes shows that cooling systems are our own individual responses to global warming. But, it also contributes to it.
Currently, most people consider air conditioning to be a necessity rather than a luxury. In fact, a 2015 survey from the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that around 90% of American households had air conditioning. And, this number is only expected to increase—and on a global scale as well.
Confused on how these all relate? Let’s break it down.
Most of the time, electricity powers air conditioners. The majority of energy use in the world is still non-renewable. Methods of generating electricity are usually harmful to the environment, like burning fossil fuels.
This then releases greenhouse gases and contributes to air pollution. As a result, air conditioners release carbon emissions into the atmosphere. And, the more energy inefficient the device, the more electricity it will take to use. This leads to more emissions released.
And the HVAC Industry Isn’t Innovating Quickly Either
Given that cooling isn’t really a major conversation piece in the climate debate, it makes sense that little innovation has been made in the past few decades. Clean energy nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute goes a step further, writing in a report that market failures are the reason why the HVAC has been extremely slow to change.
Consumers’ “misplaced emphasis” on low first cost compared to operational cost was a key failure, according to the report. Given this, there’s virtually no incentive for cooling manufacturers to innovate. And strong market demand for low-cost air conditioners means manufacturers are more focused on volume, not quality.
So, manufacturers sell air conditioners that only meet or slightly exceed Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS). These standards focus on making products more energy-efficient.
But as global demand for cooling keeps going up, we’re going to need more than the bare minimum to combat our greatest environmental challenges.
You can also read our full Q&A with Nelumbo CEO Liam Berryman, where we talk about how he dropped out of UC Berkeley, co-founded the company with two PhDs, and built a million-dollar business. (Linked here.)