We are in a vicious cycle when it comes to climate control: The hotter the world gets, the more people want to use air conditioning—but using air conditioning also adds to global warming, which means more need for air conditioning. By one calculation, as more people around the world can afford to buy and use air conditioners over the next three decades, we’re on a path to add half a degree Celsius of global warming by the end of the century from air conditioning alone if the technology doesn’t change.
Two things make air conditioners particularly bad for climate change. “One, it’s a very energy-intensive piece of equipment, and two, the refrigerants that air conditioners use are highly potent greenhouse gases,” says Iain Campbell, a senior fellow at the nonprofit RMI, which worked with the Indian government and a clean energy initiative called Mission Innovation to launch the Global Cooling Prize, a competition that asked manufacturers to completely redesign air conditioners to shrink the climate footprint.
Today, the competition announced two winners with new prototypes for air conditioners that have five times less climate impact than the units that are on the market now. If scaled up, the technologies could help avoid 132 billion metric tons of CO2-equivalent emissions by the middle of the century.