In sunny South Africa, air conditioning has become the norm for protection against the summer heat. Likewise, we set aircons to higher temperatures to keep warm in winter. We use aircons more often than we even notice – in our cars, at home and at work. Every restaurant, lecture theatre and grocery store uses an aircon to regulate the temperature. We’ve become so accustomed to this convenient comfort many worry that our bodies are losing the ability to regulate and respond to natural temperatures.
What’s the problem with aircons?
You’re recycling your plastics, buying organic foods and reducing fuel emissions in your car, but have you given any thought to the damage your air conditioner is doing to the environment? It may seem inconsequential, but the use of aircons has become a global environmental issue. For some perspective, consider that aircon electricity consumption in the USA is up to 20% – that is about as much electricity as the whole African continent uses. Even within Africa, we are using more and more electricity to maintain our air conditioning use. In 2011, 2.3 million air conditioning units were imported into Africa, with the count increasing by a whopping 70% the next year and steadily climbing. This benefits the development of African housing infrastructure, but has devastating effects on the environment.
How are air conditioners harmful?
1. Energy use
Air conditioners are electrical appliances. The burning of fossil fuels to create and supply electricity to buildings releases pollutants such as mercury and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The more electrical appliances we use, the higher our CO2 emissions and the more damage is done to the ozone layer of the atmosphere. This creates effects such as global warming and acid rain.
This use of electricity is also damaging to our power bills, individually and on a national level, as more power needs to be produced and supplied to our homes to run the aircons.
Even if your air conditioner is solar powered and does not rely on electricity to function, it is still harmful to the atmosphere. Aircons pump out all the hot air in your building or car into the atmosphere, which creates heat zones above your local area. These heat zones can cover entire cities and disrupt natural weather patterns, leading to abnormal cloud formations, rainfalls and more.
CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) have mostly been replaced by HCFCs (hydro chlorofluorocarbons) as cooling agents in air conditioners, since HCFCs are over 90% more ozone-friendly. Regardless, the excessive use of air conditioners increases the level of HCFCs in the atmosphere, which is setting back ozone recovery by an estimated 25 years. HCFCs are one of the most common greenhouse gases. Countries like the US have banned HCFCs and replaced them with ozone-safe cooling agents, which has shown great improvement in environmental development. However, developing countries like South Africa will still be using HCFCs in air conditioners and other appliances for the next 30 years, as they are more cost-efficient than ozone-safe alternatives.
If air conditioners are not disposed of properly, there is further risk of HCFC emissions. The South African Waste Act requires that all hazardous materials (including ozone depletion substances like HCFCs) be responsibly disposed of, with the HCFCs and other chemicals recovered from the appliance and recycled.
4. Personal health
Air conditioning can protect against ailments like heat stroke and hypothermia, but can be the cause of many more. Health risks increase with inefficient aircon maintenance. When the filters get dirty, you become exposed to pollutant particles like pesticides and allergens. Allergies, asthma, and eye, nose and throat irritations are commonly caused by faulty aircons.
What can we do?
South Africa has put a number of laws and regulations in place to protect the environment. We have signed the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer and have implemented a phasing out plan of chemicals such as HCFCs. Included in this plan are extensive guidelines on the proper management of HCFCs and other substances during the phasing out period. The complete removal of HCFCs is expected to be accomplished by 2040.
Sensibility shows that an overall ban on air conditioners and similar appliances will not solve the issue; rather, effective regulation on energy consumption, HCFC emissions and the manufacture or import of air conditioners will aid in the protection of the environment. Replacing HCFCs with ozone-friendly chemicals is ideal, but not economically viable in places like South Africa yet.
Easy alternatives to aircons
1. Install ceiling insulation to keep the heat out in summer and in, during winter.
2. Ceiling fans and handheld fans use less electricity than aircons and don’t use HCFCs.
3. Open the window to allow cool air indoors, or seal the windows to keep indoor temperatures constant.
4. Dress for the weather.
5. Bonus tricks for summer:
a. Use your refrigerator to cool clothes and bedsheets before use
b. Place buckets of cold water in doorways and windows (the air coming through the doorway is cooled and moistened by the water).
It’s our responsibility to protect our environment – we hope that these tips will be useful to you.