BC weather: Access to air conditioning during extreme heat

Whether it’s through misting stations, air-conditioned public spaces or parks with shady trees, there are plenty of ways to keep cool outside, but options are limited for those at home and not everyone is equipped to beat the heat.

“Air conditioning is some of the best technology we know to help humans cope with a rise in climate,” said Jacob Kincer, a senior policy analyst at the Energy for Growth Hub where he researches emerging clean energy technologies.

But he understands not everyone in the province has access to air conditioning.

“It really shouldn’t be seen as a luxury that makes things a little more comfortable because, a lot of times, heat waves kill people,” he said.

Extreme heat in 2021 claimed 619 lives across the province as temperatures broke records and surpassed 40 C for several days in a row in late June and early July.

Nearly three-quarters of the deaths happened in the Fraser and Vancouver Coastal Health Authorities and most who died didn’t have adequate cooling systems like air conditioners or fans in their homes.

“This is not a problem that’s going away. It’s actually going to get a lot worse,” Kincer said.

“It’s something where we have to figure out how to make it work. So, that means finding ways to make air conditioning more efficient, making people’s homes more insulated so there’s a lower energy usage when you do use it,” he continued.

And the demand is ever-growing — global energy demand from AC is expected to triple by 2050.

While it’s meant to cool you down, one expert says AC units can have the opposite effect on the planet.

“Electricity can be generated cleanly, as we do here from BC Hydro or in many places of the world, it’s using a lot of coal. When we do that, it puts a lot of carbon dioxide out in the atmosphere which contributes to climate change ,’ said Werner Antweiler, an associate professor at the UBC Sauder School of Business.

Even with clean electricity, he said AC still leaves an environmental footprint with harmful chemicals released by these cooling systems.

“There are concerns about the refrigerants that are used in air conditioning units. There are some older types that are using refrigerants that are harmful to the climate,” Antweiler said.

“And there’s a global push to change the type of refrigerants that we’re currently using and make them less harmful to the environment,” he continued.

Several groups in Vancouver have been calling on all levels of government to make air conditioning more accessible, especially to those most vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat, including seniors, those living alone and people with underlying health issues.

And despite the environmental impacts — they say human lives should be prioritized.

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