Europe is experiencing record-breaking heat waves that are pushing many people to seek relief from air conditioning. However, the continent has a long-standing aversion to the energy-sucking cooling systems that are common in other parts of the world. How are Europeans adapting to the changing climate and the growing need for cooling?
The cultural and environmental barriers to AC adoption
Air conditioning is still a rarity in many European countries, especially in older buildings that were not designed for it. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), fewer than 10% of households in Europe had air conditioners as of 2016, compared to 90% in the US and 60% in China.
Many Europeans view AC as an unnecessary luxury, a waste of energy, or a health hazard. They prefer to rely on natural ventilation, shading, fans, or water sprays to cool down. Some also fear that AC could spread diseases or worsen allergies by circulating germs and dust.
However, these cultural attitudes are being challenged by the rising temperatures and the increasing frequency and intensity of heat waves. According to the World Meteorological Organization, Europe had its hottest summer on record in 2021, with several countries breaking their all-time temperature records. Heat waves can pose serious risks to human health, especially for the elderly, the sick, and the poor. They can also cause wildfires, crop failures, infrastructure damage, and power outages.
The policy and market responses to AC demand
As the summer breezes fade, more Europeans are giving air conditioning a skeptical embrace. Some countries have seen a surge in AC sales and installations in recent years, especially in southern regions like Spain, Italy, and Greece. According to Eurostat, the share of households with AC in Spain rose from 5% in 2007 to 35% in 2019. In Italy, it increased from 9% to 23% in the same period.
However, AC use also comes with challenges and trade-offs. Cooling devices account for about 10% of global electricity consumption, and most of that electricity still comes from fossil fuels. This means that AC use contributes to greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change and make heat waves worse. Moreover, AC use can strain the electricity grid when many units switch on at the same time during peak hours. This can lead to blackouts or higher prices for consumers.
To address these issues, some European countries have introduced policies and regulations to limit or improve AC use. For example, as of mid-August 2023, Greece, Italy and Spain have all announced that AC and heat in public buildings cannot be set lower than a certain temperature in summer and above a specific temperature in winter. These measures aim to reduce energy consumption and emissions while ensuring comfort and safety for occupants.
Other initiatives focus on promoting more efficient and renewable cooling technologies, such as heat pumps, solar panels, or district cooling systems. The EU has also set minimum energy performance standards for cooling appliances and labels them according to their efficiency ratings. These policies aim to encourage consumers and manufacturers to choose more sustainable cooling options.
The future of cooling in Europe
The demand for cooling is expected to grow in Europe as well as globally in the coming years, as incomes rise and temperatures increase due to climate change. The IEA estimates that energy use for cooling worldwide will triple by 2050, with half of that growth coming from India and China.
However, this does not mean that Europe will follow the same path as other regions that have embraced AC widely. Europe has a different climate, culture, and policy context that may shape its cooling choices differently. For example, Europe may invest more in building design and urban planning that can reduce the need for cooling by enhancing natural ventilation, shading, insulation, or green spaces.
Europe may also adopt more innovative and integrated cooling solutions that can provide multiple benefits beyond temperature control. For example, some researchers are exploring how cooling devices can also provide heating, dehumidification, air purification, or water harvesting. Others are looking at how cooling systems can be integrated with smart grids, energy storage, or demand response mechanisms to optimize their performance and reduce their environmental impact.
Ultimately, cooling is not only a technical challenge but also a social one. It requires balancing the needs and preferences of different stakeholders, such as consumers, producers, regulators, and communities. It also requires considering the trade-offs and synergies between cooling and other goals, such as health, comfort, productivity, equity, and sustainability.