Air-Conditioners Cool the Home but Heat the Planet. Can Anyone Invent a Better One?

As incomes grow and more people move to cities, and as global temperatures rise, the world is buying more air-conditioners. And as more air-conditioners spin up — you guessed it — they cause more warming, both through the energy they consume and the gases they release.

In fact, the number of air-conditioning units worldwide could surge to 4.5 billion by 2050 from about 1.2 billion today, a new report warns. By the end of the century, household air-conditioning alone could elevate global temperatures by as much as a half-degree Celsius.

household air-conditioning alone could elevate global temperatures by as much as a half-degree Celsius

household air-conditioning alone could elevate global temperatures by as much as a half-degree Celsius

Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur and Virgin Group founder, hopes to break that vicious cycle. This week he helped to initiate the Global Cooling Prize, a $3 million technology competition that aims to spur more efficient air-conditioning technology.

The prize aims to “literally help save to save the world from the disaster it is facing,” Mr. Branson said on a brief call with reporters ahead of the program’s formal opening in New Delhi, India, on Monday. (The Indian government is a partner.)

“Most air-conditioners, at their core, are still running on 100-year-old vapor compression technology,” Mr. Branson said. “There’s been no incentive for innovation.” He added that the prize isn’t open only to start-ups, but people from all walks of life.

The prize initially offers 10 chosen contenders $200,000 to build prototypes of more efficient cooling methods. That technology will then be tested in a lab as well as in 10 Indian apartments in midsummer.

“We think the world needs air-conditioners that are five times more efficient,” said Iain Campbell of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based nonprofit that wrote the new report and is managing the prize.

One start-up, for example — SkyCool Systems, based in Palo Alto, Calif. — is working on a literally out-of-this-world technology that beams the heat of the sun away from the earth and into space. The technology would take advantage of the ability of infrared light to pass through the atmosphere at certain wavelengths.

There are also more down-to-earth ideas. As my colleague Kendra Pierre-Louis wrote this year, experts say governments should also set efficiency standards for air-conditioners and provide incentives for manufacturers and buyers.

There has been some good news. As part of an agreement known as the Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol, some countries are working to phase out refrigerants that are also potent greenhouse gases.

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