American air conditioners are energy hogs

Executive Editor
Chart of electricity consumption per capita
Source: Energy for Growth Hub , International Energy Agency , Energy Star • Country data is from 2019.

Even the most efficient U.S. window air conditioner uses more energy than the per capita electricity consumption of numerous African countries whose economies are still developing.

The irony is stark. These populations largely do not have access to ACs despite often sweltering temperatures that are getting hotter due to climate change caused primarily by wealthier nations.

Today’s air conditioning technologies account for nearly 20% of the total electricity used in buildings today, according to the International Energy Agency.

As the world warms—due largely to climate change—more and more people will need air conditioning, creating a cruel feedback loop: As the Earth warms, we use more air conditioning, which could (if we don’t update technologies) warm the planet even more.

“Could the need for cooling wind up cooking the planet? Actually, this is the wrong question to ask. Ditching AC is not an option, and it should not be the goal either,” write experts, including from the Energy for Growth Hub, in a Scientific American article from May.

They go on: “Instead of a threat, this should be seen as an opportunity to explore greener cooling technology and encourage the adoption of renewable energy. Meanwhile air-conditioning has the potential to equalize conditions between different countries as an essential part of climate justice.”