UC Berkeley News: Air Conditioning in a Changing Climate: A Widening Rich-Poor Divide

As the earth’s climate warms, residents of wealthy nations will find some relief from air conditioning, but people in low-income countries may have to pay significantly more for electricity or go without cooling, says a new study conducted at the University of California co-authored, Berkeley.

The study, published today in Nature, offers a dramatic new look at how climate change will widen the global divide between rich and poor nations. It found that even with rising temperatures, electricity consumption in the US could only increase marginally by the end of the century. However, in some emerging markets, energy demand could rise dramatically if residents seek access to air conditioning, while others will still be so poor that air conditioning will remain an inaccessible dream, the researchers found.

Previous models, based on broad assumptions and limited data, predicted that rising temperatures would create dramatic new costs – the “social cost of carbon” – in much of the world. But those models were flawed because they were only based on conditions in wealthy nations, said lead author Solomon Hsiang, co-director of the Climate Impact Lab and professor of public policy at UC Berkeley.

“Previous analyzes ignored energy usage data from developing countries, where billions live in poverty and have no access to energy,” said Hsiang. “Studies simply assumed that people everywhere behaved similarly to the US or UK. But their conclusions were exactly the opposite. Our data shows that richer populations can protect themselves from the effects of warming, but the poor worldwide have not this luxury. “

Ashwin Rode, director of scientific research at the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute and a member of the Climate Impact Lab, illustrated this with drastic data:

“While 90% of households in the US are air-conditioned in some way,” explained Rode, “this is currently only the case for 5% of households in India more than half of the world’s population remains inaccessible. “

The Climate Impact Lab is a joint initiative of more than 30 researchers from the Rhodium Group; the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Rutgers University; the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara; the University of Delaware; Princeton University; Fudan University in China; from the University of Chicago and UC Berkeley.

An important project for the Climate Impact Lab researchers is to measure the social costs of carbon using economic statistics and big data analysis, which are more powerful than any tool previously used in this area. The Analysis of Expected Energy Use and Costs is the first published paper in a series that looks at the social costs of carbon reflected in agriculture, health, labor, sea level rise and other areas.

Such research is already having profound implications as world leaders work to develop policies that will limit climate change and mitigate its impact on humans. Earlier this year, U.S. President Joe Biden issued executive orders instructing key regulators to assess the economic risks of climate change and address the impact of environmental change on equity, both of which are topics covered in the new study.

“Our hope is that the best data-driven science available will be used to design climate change strategies in the US and internationally,” said Hsiang. “Our children and grandchildren cannot afford to make these decisions based on intuition or gut instinct.” Researchers at the Global Policy Lab at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy have been working on numbers for the past five years to bring that vision to life, he added.

In its basic form, the societal cost of carbon is the most comprehensive way of looking at the human impact of every additional tonne of climate-warming carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are pumped into the atmosphere.

From a global perspective, the numbers from the new Climate Impact Lab research almost seem like good news:

For every ton of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere now, annual energy spending would decrease by $ 1 to $ 3 a year in a warming world. The world emits more than 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, which corresponds to a saving of up to 0.17% of the world’s gross domestic product, the authors conclude.

But these global numbers hide important differences between rich countries in relatively temperate zones and poor countries, which are often closer to the equator. The effects of climate change on electricity consumption could be mild for some and severe for others.

The study found that US electricity demand is projected to grow a modest 2.7% through 2099. In Indonesia it could increase by almost 100% by the end of the century and in India by 145%. In Africa, demand in Ethiopia would more than triple, while in Nigeria an increase of almost 2,100% is forecast.

In emerging countries like India, Nigeria and Mexico, more people may have access to air conditioning over the years. According to the researchers, however, this demand poses challenges for the power grid and for politicians who have to plan and maintain the energy infrastructure.

The new results show “the critical role of economic development in shaping the response of energy use to climate change,” the paper concludes. “We find that much of the world will remain too poor to spend significantly on energy-intensive cooling technologies in the decades to come.”

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