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Air conditioning for all? Hotter world faces risk of ‘cooling poverty’

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OXFORD: As climate change brings more frequent and extreme heatwaves around the world, demand for air conditioners is soaring, with 10 new units sold every second on average – but the poor may be left to swelter, said a University of Oxford researcher.

By 2050, energy use for cooling is projected to triple, while in hot countries like India, China, Brazil and Indonesia, it is expected to grow five-fold, the World Bank has said.

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"By the end of the century, global energy demand for cooling will be more than it is for heating,” said Radhika Khosla, who leads an Oxford Martin School programme on future cooling.

But not everyone will be able to afford to beat the heat.

“Traditionally, energy poverty has been defined as people not having heating. Now that is potentially going to shift, and we could have cooling poverty,” Khosla warned on the sidelines of a conference on efforts to slash planet-warming emissions.

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Rising heat is having a huge impact on health – deaths and hospital admissions jump in heatwaves – but also on productivity as workers struggle to cope, climate scientists say.

A 2018 report from Sustainable Energy for All, a UN-backed organisation, said more than 1.1 billion people globally faced immediate risks from lack of access to cooling.

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On a warming planet, cooling is not a luxury but "essential for everyday life", said the organisation's CEO Rachel Kyte.

But because air conditioners use 20 times as much power as running a fan, their growing popularity could fuel demand for fossil fuel-based electricity that exacerbates climate change.

Rather than relying entirely on air conditioning, buildings should be designed so they are easier to keep cool, which is still rare, said Khosla, who also directs research at the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development.

Her modern apartment has windows that open just a few inches, making it hard to keep cool on hot days, she said.

File photo of air-conditioning units. (Photo: REUTERS/Sergio Moraes)

“Net zero” buildings – designed partly to stay cool without heavy use of air conditioning – are popping up around the world, from Southeast Asia to the United States and Europe, but remain the exception, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Khosla, who has herself lived in a range of hot cities from New Delhi to Chicago, predicted that in the future, housing that cannot be kept cool or have air conditioning installed could see a drop in value, even in relatively cool places such as Britain.

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In some developing nations with rising incomes, buying an air conditioner is also a status symbol, which could make any push for lower-energy alternatives challenging, she said.

Making less power-hungry, affordable air conditioners will be crucial, Khosla believes.

Most machines for sale now – the majority built in China – are half as energy-efficient as they could be, she said.

But researchers are wo