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Let's Be Honest, Episode 28: Air Conditioner

Let’s be honest is a Food Circle project to open up the conversation about the challenges when being or becoming a member of the SC (Sustainability Club). This series will shine a light on the different approaches to making life more sustainable and the step-backs and difficulties that arise. Being more kind and understanding, instead of critical, will hopefully help to encourage us to try instead of giving up when facing a step-back or failure. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world, creating a uniquely multicultural environment.

Let’s celebrate the achievements and give room for honesty and struggles!

It's July. In the Northern Hemisphere summer is arriving at its pinnacle. The temperatures rise to record highs and Europe and the UK fall victim to a blazing heat wave. To endure a hot day the majority of us might want to hold onto a cold drink, go for a refreshing swim or take shelter in a cool place. That is where an air conditioner comes in handy.

Japan, the United States and South Korea place in the top three of countries with most households that have air conditioning systems, Japan leading the trio with an impressive 91 percent of air-conditioned homes [1]. Exposure to excessive heat can be life threatening, hence for many A/C is a household essential. But not only is cool air accessory to one's home, it also has become a crucial factor for well-being on commute, in public transportation, offices, stores, gyms, elevators and tunnels.

By contrast, the rarity of air-conditioning in European homes is prevalent. Statistics show that a mere fifth of all European households use air conditioning systems [2]. This is partly explained by heat waves that remained scarce in the European region up until this point, and overall mild weather. Homes in Europe are mostly built on thermal insulation principle [3]. That means houses are suitably engineered and built so that heat transfer can be reduced. Not to say that this produces cold air indoors, but simply lessens the heat in the room, which people get used to and are able to bear higher indoor temperatures. However, summer temperatures are getting higher and higher, so consequently indoor temperature becomes more and more uncomfortable.

Advantages and Disadvantages: At What Expense Do We Use Air Conditioner?

Studies show that air conditioning increases productivity and positively affects sleep [4]. Air conditioner is also effective at steering clear of insects and parasites in your home, keeping the house cleaner. Another benefit - air conditioners minimise the risk of asthma attacks. A running A/C keeps pollen, mould, mildew and other airborne allergens at bay, therefore decreasing the chance of asthma symptoms and exposure to indoor allergens. Most importantly, air conditioning is an aid for prevention of heat-related illnesses and deaths. Above all, air conditioning offers relief and is overall a major convenience that makes your living space more comfortable.

But what is the cost of such comfort? Do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages? Well, both on a smaller and a larger scale air conditioners have major faults. As it affects health positively, there is also a negative impact. A/C can anchor the growth of bacteria and fungus due to contained moisture inside the device [5]. If the device is not properly maintained, the fungus builds up and gets blown out into the air. Lung inflammation and pneumonia can be the result of the exposure to such microorganisms. Hazardous to physical health is also the so-called sick building syndrome brought about by some indoor environments. This means that staying in unventilated, air-conditioned rooms may make you dizzy or nauseated, your eyes itchy and throat dry.

Topping the list of cons are, of course, the negative environmental impact of air conditioning. There is no doubt that an air conditioner requires a lot of energy. Besides making your electricity bill skyrocket, the amount of energy produced concurs with the burning of fossil fuels. This results in CO2 emissions: a torment to the environment [6]. When fossil fuels are burned, carbon dioxide, or more widely known as greenhouse gas, is also emitted [7]; it is one of the most harmful gasses to the environment. A working air conditioner requires a constant energy supply, which is powered by coal, solar panels and wind turbines. In the United States alone air conditioning is responsible for two percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Air conditioners operate similarly to refrigerators or freezers: the heat gets transported from the cool interior, be it the fridge, the freezer or the room, to the warmer outside. Therefore, air conditioners actually increase the outside temperature. This process is also called “stack effect” or “chimney effect”. Oddly enough, the hotter the air gets due to air conditioning, the more people feel the need to amp up their air conditioning. It becomes an endless loop - and one that directly contributes to global warming.

What is more, the cooling agents found inside the air conditioner, namely chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are damaging to the ozone layer [8]. Earlier models of A/C used to operate with CFC, a direct perpetrator to holes in the ozone layer. Newer models rely on HFC, an environmentally better alternative than CFC, yet still not entirely a “green” solution, as HFC has thousands of times bigger warming capacity than carbon dioxide.

Lastly, let us consider the exterior of an air conditioner. The majority of these appliances are made out of plastic. Past editions of the air conditioner were produced using metal materials. Both metal and plastic are environmentally unsustainable, however, plastic is entirely non-biodegradable and the production of which alone leaves a damage to the environment. As with any appliance that endures frequent usage, air conditioners get replaced and disposed of, winding up in landfills.

Some Alternatives

When we consider health factors, cold air is sometimes a necessity. As heat gradually rises every year, some homes are not constructed to endure it and maintain a bearable interior temperature.

On the bright side, there are some more eco-friendly alternatives to get that breeze of much needed cold air into your home. Some of these solutions call for reintroducing older methods of cooling your living space, for example, using awnings. Interestingly enough, the covering attached to an exterior wall may reduce up to 65 percent of heat inside your home [9]. A similar effect could be achieved by planting a large tree near the house. Another option to reduce heat - although seemingly trivial - is to paint the roof white. Light coloured roofing reflects sunlight and has proven to be an effective cooling method in both urban and rural areas.

In circumstances where the construction of living space is out of your control, such as in rental units, houses and apartments, a good idea would be to opt for environmentally friendly A/C systems or other natural alternatives. Evaporative cooler, a device similar to A/C, functions by pumping out cool air by the means of water evaporation. On a sweltering day, ice cooler fans might also become the saving grace to stave off heat. An ice bucket attached to a fan actually does the trick and blows out colder air. Best part is that such devices can be made at home as well.

Every year we face a hotter summer. A cool shelter is a fundamental part of our physical and mental health. Luckily, some of these solutions just may help slow the deteriorating environmental effects, while also not breaking the bank.

Author: Liva Puka


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  1. Worldwide Air-Conditioning Penetration Rate Country | Statista

  2. Air Conditioning in Europe | Inaba Denko

  3. Thermal Insulation: What Is It & How Is It Used | Mid-Mountain Materials

  4. Top 10 Benefits of Air Conditioning | Brennan

  5. The Pros and Cons of Air Conditioners | CBS News

  6. How Air Conditioning Affects The Environment? | Luxe Air Conditioning

  7. 4 Negative Environmental Impacts of Air Conditioners | Ecomena

  8. What Are HFCs and How are They Different from CFCs? | Green America

  9. These Green Alternatives to Air Conditioning May Surprise You