As a heatwave intensifies in southern Europe, many homes in the region are struggling to cope without air conditioning. The UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has warned that the “extreme heat” is expected to worsen in the coming days, potentially setting new records. Despite soaring temperatures exceeding 37°C in parts of Italy, Greece, and Spain, a significant number of homes across Europe do not have air conditioning.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), less than 10% of European households have air conditioning units. This figure is based on the agency’s 2018 report, which also revealed that the European Union accounts for only 6% of global air conditioning units. In stark contrast, around 90% of homes in the United States and Japan are equipped with air conditioning.
The IEA report highlighted that air conditioning is heavily concentrated in a few countries, with China, the United States, and Japan accounting for two-thirds of all systems. More recent figures released by the IEA in 2021 show that the United States possesses about 20% of the world‘s air conditioning units, while China accounts for 40%. The rest of the world collectively holds the remaining 29%.
Although Europeans had been less inclined to adopt air conditioning compared to their American counterparts, the IEA noted a rapid increase in air conditioning ownership in countries like Italy, Spain, Greece, and southern France over the past decade.
While air conditioning helps keep people cool in hot weather, its widespread use in the United States, China, and Japan contributes to higher energy consumption and carbon emissions. The IEA’s 2018 report stated that air conditioning and electric fans account for nearly 20% of the total electricity used in buildings worldwide. As global economic and population growth continues to focus on warmer countries, this trend is expected to grow.
Governments in Europe are attempting to balance the rising demand for air conditioning with the need to control costs and emissions. For instance, the Italian government has implemented maximum cooling levels in summer and minimum heating levels in winter for all public buildings, except hospitals. In France, fines were introduced last summer for stores that keep their doors open while the air conditioning is running.
According to the IEA’s 2021 figures, global CO2 emissions from air conditioning totaled 994 metric tons, primarily resulting from indirect emissions associated with electricity generation. The Rocky Mountain Institute warns that with an estimated 1.6 billion electric air conditioning units worldwide, a number expected to triple by 2050, the technology could contribute to a 0.5-degree Celsius increase in temperatures by the end of the century.
The IEA suggests that investing in more efficient air conditioning units could help reduce future energy demand by half. However, it remains a challenge for European governments to strike a balance between addressing the increasing demand for air conditioning and minimizing its environmental impact.
[Note: Content sourced from previously reported articles by CNN’s Eliza Mackintosh and Ivana Kottasová.]