I watched this excellent TED talk by Hans Rosling the other day. The topic under discussion is that–now that appliances which are a huge drain on the environment are becoming available to people in the developing, as incomes rise and prices fall–how can we deny them ecological damaging, but amazingly efficient modern conveniences? You know? How can we do that without coming across as (and actually being) totally racist and imperialist, and self-absorbed. Hans Rosling’s answer to this question–and it’s one that I agree with–is simple: we can’t. He has a lot of data to support that position, but the most convincing part of his talk is the anecdote he tells about his mother and grandmother suddenly having time to read and help him with his school work once they got a washing machine for their home. The idea is: greater efficiency creates opportunities for more education, and therefore for a more humane and sustainable society.
The whole talk put me in mind of air-conditioning, which is a technology whose diffusion into the 3rd world I would personally guesstimate (although I don’t have hard data to back me up on this) is going to be much, much more harmful then the dissemination of the washing machine: air conditioning.
The Problem With Air Conditioning
Air conditioning coolant contributes to global warming way out proportion with how much of it is actually used, mass-wise. It is extremely toxic stuff. Although AC units make indoor air comfortable, scientists worry about their negative environmental impact. Particularly in developing countries, consumers and scientists must consider the impact coolant has on the future.
In India, air conditioners provide middle class citizens with a symbol of their social status. Families rely on the window units to cool homes for sleeping, visiting and studying. Annual sales have risen 20 percent. Greater demand for coolant leads to environmental challenges, however.
Regulating Coolant: Challenges and Possibilities
AC units rely on coolant gases. Older models use CFC coolants that damage the ozone layer. Newer models use HCFCs. While the HCFC coolants contribute less damage to the ozone layer, a better alternative exists.
Newer HFC gases do not damage the ozone layer. They do contribute to global warming, though. By 2050, air conditioning gases could account for 27 percent of all global warming.
In an effort to reduce the environmental impact of AC coolants, the Montreal Protocol began regulating CFCs in 1987. The treaty eliminates CFCs and seeks to phase out HCFCs. It does not address the HFCs and the resulting global warming crisis, however.
Several Alternative Coolant Choices
The increase in AC use worldwide has led to a demand for the production of HCFCs. For environmental protection, the Protocol originally called for an end to HCFC use by 2040. Officials have accelerated that timetable and now insist that countries stabilize and decrease the gas’s use by 2015.
Currently, DuPont in the US and Daikin in Japan build appliances that use environmentally safe gases. One gas, hydrocarbon, is used by companies in Europe and the US. Another, 1234yf, includes a disputed patent and unfinished safety tests. These options are flammable or toxic, however, and expensive to regulate.
Protect the Ozone, Decrease Global Warming or Focus on Both?
Scientists and countries struggle to find a solution to the dilemma. Replacing HCFCs with friendlier alternatives would prove too costly for developing countries with limited financial resources. Additionally, the current units provide a large profit for countries like China that manufacture AC units and HCFC gases.
The Protocol offers financial incentives to anyone who can develop a solution. The limited funds do not cover high costs of changing machines or meeting regulations and thus remain ineffective in the long run.
Countries around the world also disagree about which environmental resource to protect. Developing countries agree that reducing HCFCs is important. Richer nations reject HFC alternatives altogether. Meanwhile, Canadians insists on using only gases that do not increase global warming.
How Consumers can Protect the Environment
While countries cannot agree on a viable solution, consumers can play a significant role in reducing the negative environmental impact AC units produce.
For starters, consumers can purchase available units that use clean gases.
Next, they can insert new air conditioner filters at least once every three to six months. All filters remove harmful contaminants from the air and increase indoor air quality without negatively affecting the environment.
Finally, consumers can clean their units with environmentally friendly cleaning solutions. Regular cleaning removes dangerous dust, mold and mildew. Many cleaning chemicals, however, damage the environment and indoor air quality. Instead, consumers can use non-toxic antimicrobial cleaners.
With these precautions, consumers enjoy pure air quality, remain cool and comfortable indoors, and protect the environment for future generations.
Solving the environmental crisis caused by air conditioning coolant is a challenge that must be taken seriously. Updating the coolant used and committing to clean air conditioning practices keeps consumers cool and improves the environment one unit at a time.