‘Overusing ACs is Unsustainable’: Experts Suggest Rethinking Climate Policies

With temperatures increasing sharply in India, the usage of air conditioners has dramatically gone up too.

Climate Change
4 min read

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With temperatures increasing sharply in India, the usage of air conditioners has dramatically gone up too.

In April and May this year, multiple news reports had stated that thousands of AC units were being sold in the subcontinent each day.

But, while ACs are one of our few respites in this heat wave, their rising usage poses a big question about climate change and sustainability.

Last year, the annual Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report had suggested that the “widespread use of ACs is driving up temperatures”

"This might mean that by the year 2100, more than 3/4th of the world’s population would be exposed to periods of life-threatening heat and humidity."
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report

Experts have time and time again said that there is clearly an urgent need to rethink the cooling and energy sectors in India. The Quint spoke to experts to decode this.


Unsustainable Usage & Perpetuating Climate Injustice

Abinash Mohanty, Sector Head, Climate Change & Sustainability at IPE Global, and Expert Reviewer of IPCC- AR(6), tells The Quint, “The way we are currently using electric appliances like ACs is quite unsustainable.”

He adds that there are multiple layers of nuance to this.

  • One is that while people use ACs to avoid the health consequences of increasing temperatures, Mohanty says that constantly being in an air-conditioned space will also make you more prone to lifestyle diseases and other health issues like asthma.

  • Another point is that while we’re trying to protect ourselves from heat-related health illnesses by switching on air conditioners, we’re inevitably contributing to the heat and climate change outside because of the increased energy consumption and the warm air that ACs release.

“Awareness (about sustainability) is needed among those who can actually afford ACs. There’s a major chunk of our population that can’t even afford air coolers or fans. This is what we also call climate injustice. We have contributed so significantly to climate change, that it’s now become a disaster and the ‘new normal’ for us, but access to remedies is not the same for everyone.”
Abinash Mohanty

ACs Are Now a Fire Hazard Too

Kanika Jamwal, a doctoral candidate in environmental law at the National University of Singapore, agrees with Mohanty.

She mentions that while for the “more privileged amongst us,” air conditioners are becoming a fire hazard, “for those who perform physical labour, heatwaves are an emergency which threaten both, their physical and economic well-being.”

In the last few weeks, north India has been seeing an increasing number of cases of ACs catching fire due to rising heat. On 30 May, a blast in an AC in Noida’s Lotus Boulevard Society triggered a fire, which was contained within a room by fire marshalls.

Just two days later, on 1 June, a short circuit in an AC in Gurugram’s Sector 47 led to another fire. On the same day, an AC blast in an IT company in Noida also led to a fire accident.

On 3 June, in a private office in Noida’s Sector 10, an AC unit had a short circuit, causing a fire, which then caught an LPG cylinder, leading to a minor explosion. On 6 June, fire broke out in a two-story building in Ghaziabad’s Vasundhara after an AC burst into flames.

At least two more such cases have been reported in the National Capital Region in June this year.

Mohanty tells The Quint, “Whenever an event becomes a disaster or a catastrophe, it catches the limelight – like ACs recently catching fire or bursting in north India.”

But, he points out, “ACs are electrical appliances that have gases like R-32 which are flammable.”

So, what does one do then in this heat wave – not use ACs?

Being more mindful is the individual solution, says Mohanty. This could mean:

  • Buying energy-efficient ACs

  • Using the AC at a temperature of 24 degrees Celsius or higher

  • Getting the AC serviced periodically so it’s energy efficient

  • Not using the AC for long periods at a stretch


Rethink Infrastructure, Opt for Targeted Policies: The Way Ahead

But, of course, from a climate policy perspective, bigger changes are required.

Jamwal suggests,

“Targeted policy attempting to monitor individual consumers’ consumption may be an attractive starting point. However, it is neither sufficient nor unfailing. In that, prohibitory measures may be difficult to enforce, and incentive-based measures may not achieve the desired result.”

However, what can work, according to both the experts The Quint spoke to, is:

  • Effectively addressing policies to facilitate decarbonisation in an equitable manner.

  • Acknowledging the need for policies that can facilitate adaptation to extreme weather events, starting with those most vulnerable to it.

  • Rethinking our infrastructure and architecture to incorporate more traditional practices.

“Not all traditional means (of architecture) will be practical in metro cities today, but we do need to consider them based on topography, geography, and economic feasibility," explains Mohanty.

"We need a hyper-granular heat risk assessment to study which months will be most impacted by heat, which geographic areas, which pockets within cities, what demography and then figure out how to combat the issue.”
Abinash Mohanty

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