How Air Conditioning Changed the World … And Threatens the Future

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We can celebrate 123 years of air conditioning — but it comes at a cost.

10% of global electricity use goes towards space cooling, while air conditioning accounts for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions. By 2100, AC units are expected to account for roughly half the total electricity generated worldwide in 2010.

Techopedia explores how AC changed the world, changing building designs, unlocking new habitable areas, and even affecting political outcomes. We also look ahead to the next 123 years.

The cooling convenience is making the Earth hotter. The big question is how we can break free from this vicious circle. Will technology evolve to help?

Key Takeaways

  • Comfort indoors, crisis outdoors: We explore the irony of AC.
  • Efforts are underway to make AC units more affordable and efficient.
  • As AC puts increasing energy demands on the planet, we need to maximize planning like tree planting, building design, and materials.

From Humidity Control to Habitat Transformation: The Evolution of Air Conditioning

The story of air conditioning began over a century ago, in 1901, when Willis Carrier, an engineer, developed the first modern air conditioning unit to solve humidity problems in a New York publishing house, thereby improving the quality of color printing.

This invention did not just solve an isolated issue; it launched a revolution in climate control, leading to the founding of Carrier’s company, which mass-produced these units for wider commercial and residential use.


This technological advancement changed the landscape of architectural design and building construction. Historically, buildings were designed with the local climate in mind. In hot and humid climates, features like large windows, high ceilings, and underground rooms helped manage the heat.

Moroccan houses with central courtyards and the shaded stepwells of India are perfect examples of traditional climate-conscious architecture.

Meanwhile, the ancient Greeks and Romans utilized porticos and colonnades to provide shade, cooling their environments naturally through design.

However, as air conditioning units became more accessible and affordable, there was a significant shift. The necessity to design buildings with environmental and climatic conditions in mind diminished. Modern architecture could now defy local weather conditions, allowing glass skyscrapers to rise in the deserts and populations to expand into previously inhospitable areas.

Over the past decade, the number of households with air conditioning in, for instance, China has more than doubled, with a staggering 60 million units sold annually.

Globally, the demand is set to skyrocket, with projections indicating 700 million new units by 2030 and an astounding 1.6 billion by 2050, according to the US government’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

This transformation was not just architectural but also political, redistributing population densities, political power, and resources to places that previously were too hot to handle.

But air conditioning is not just a cool solution — it is also building up problems.

Cooling Our Homes, Warming the Planet: The Air Conditioning Paradox

The United Nations recently warned that electricity use for air conditioning could double by 2050, potentially driving up the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. If current trends continue, air conditioning and related cooling efforts could account for 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century

It’s a cruel irony that as the planet warms, we turn to air conditioning. It is a cycle that perpetuates itself, increasingly challenging to break as temperatures continue to rise.

The IPCC states that global air conditioning energy demand will grow 33-fold from 300 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 2000 to more than 10,000 TWh by 2100. This figure is equivalent to roughly half the total electricity generated worldwide in 2010.

So, how do we address this “air conditioning trap”? The solution lies in innovation and sustainability.

First, enhancing the energy efficiency of air conditioning units themselves is crucial. Advances in technology must continue to focus on reducing power consumption and integrating renewable energy sources.

Secondly, revisiting architectural traditions that consider climate can reduce reliance on mechanical cooling. By designing buildings that naturally maintain cooler temperatures, we can mitigate the impact of heat without excessive energy consumption.

The Future of Cool: Integrating Energy Efficiency in Heat Management

While air conditioning remains a critical resource for managing heat, it is not universally accessible and remains prohibitively expensive for many, particularly in less affluent communities worldwide. This disparity heightens health risks during heat waves, where cooling can mean the difference between safety and severe danger.

Martin Freer from Birmingham University’s Energy Institute predicts that worldwide energy demand for space cooling will overtake space heating by 2060 and exceed it by 60% by the end of the century.

As experts question whether Texas will eventually be too hot for humans, something clearly needs to change. Addressing these challenges requires a concerted effort to develop more affordable and energy-efficient cooling technologies, such as electric heat pumps and systems that separate cooling functions from dehumidifying, reducing overall energy consumption.

Alternative methods like fans, dehumidifiers, and swamp coolers present effective lower-energy options in various climates. Beyond technology, enhancing building design — through weatherization, heat-resistant materials, and strategic shading — can naturally lower temperatures, minimizing the need for air conditioning.

Urban planning initiatives like planting trees and installing rooftop gardens further mitigate the effects of urban heat islands.

Chilling with a Purpose: How New AC Tech is Fighting Climate Change

With the International Energy Agency forecasting a dramatic increase in air conditioning units, the need for more sustainable solutions becomes increasingly urgent.

As a result, initiatives like the Global Cooling Prize have spurred innovation from major companies such as Daikin and Gree Electric Appliances, which have developed more efficient and less environmentally damaging AC models. These advancements could significantly reduce the climate impact of these units by up to five times.

While about 80% of a standard AC unit’s climate-warming emissions come from the energy used to power it, there is hope: Blue Frontier, a Florida-based company claims to be able to make potential reductions in energy consumption of 50 to 90% with its commercial air-conditioning system that combines desiccant and evaporative cooling technologies.

A new wave of startups are pioneering alternative cooling methods that promise significant reductions in energy use and are less burdensome on electrical grids during peak demand periods.

These approaches highlight a shift in how we think about and implement air conditioning, aligning necessary cooling with crucial environmental stewardship.

Advances in everything from quantum computing to artificial intelligence also show great promise in the battle against climate change. But it’s a fine line between making a difference and flirting with greenwashing.

Global Heat, Global Action: Policy Solutions for Sustainable Cooling

Policy initiatives and global cooperation will play a critical role. Implementing stricter regulations on the energy efficiency of appliances and building codes that require climate-responsive designs can help drive substantial changes. However, these actions require global commitment and local adaptation to diverse environmental conditions.

Right now, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory:

“10% of global electricity use goes towards space cooling, while air conditioning accounts for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer or single solution to this problem. We need a range of approaches to tackle this global challenge effectively. Addressing the complexities of heat management and air conditioning dependency requires humanity to come together and combine technological advancements with structural and community-driven changes.

However, we can also get more precise in how we cool down: HVAC manufacturers are adopting advanced technologies, such as IoT-connected systems and renewable energy sources, to improve energy efficiency.

For example, integrating the Internet of Things for real-time monitoring and control can optimize cooling operations, reducing energy consumption and enhancing user comfort. Utilizing renewable energy, such as solar power can significantly lower the carbon footprint of HVAC systems

These advancements highlight how technology can play a crucial role in creating sustainable air conditioning solutions that mitigate environmental impact and promote energy efficiency.

The Bottom Line

As we look towards a sustainable future, we must ask ourselves: Are we prepared to innovate and adapt to break free from the air conditioning trap? How can our communities encourage practices that respect our comfort and planet?


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Neil C. Hughes
Senior Technology Writer
Neil C. Hughes
Senior Technology Writer

Neil is a freelance tech journalist with 20 years of experience in IT. He’s the host of the popular Tech Talks Daily Podcast, picking up a LinkedIn Top Voice for his influential insights in tech. Apart from Techopedia, his work can be found on INC, TNW, TechHQ, and Cybernews. Neil's favorite things in life range from wandering the tech conference show floors from Arizona to Armenia to enjoying a 5-day digital detox at Glastonbury Festival and supporting Derby County.  He believes technology works best when it brings people together.