Science

What do AC limits mean for a heatwave-stricken Europe?

Europe is facing another heat wave after July’s record-breaking bout of heat that caused deadly wildfires in the UK, France, and Spain. Seville, Spain, became the first city in the world to name a heat wave, calling the particularly brutal temperature spike “Zoe,” not unlike hurricanes or tropical storms, last month to underscore the threat it posed. 

But that’s not the only thing that has changed because of the massive heat waves ripping through the region. As of August 2nd, the Spanish government requires businesses to keep their thermostats at 27 degrees Celsius in the summer season (around 80 degrees Fahrenheit) or above to conserve energy (certain businesses, like bars and restaurants, can keep thermostats at around 25 degrees Celsius). Greece implemented a similar strategy for public buildings earlier in the summer. Energy prices have been high in recent months due to the war in Ukraine, and these heat waves are creating more demand for energy as people run air conditioners to try to stay cool.

Without climate change, these heat waves would be more or less impossible at this scale. Using more energy to keep indoor temperatures comfortable unfortunately contributes to climate change when energy is generated by burning fossil fuels. In Europe, about 70 percent of its power is generated by burning fossil fuels.

“If you increase your energy usage and your grid is still reliant, even partially, on fossil fuels, then that’s going to increase your total emissions,” says Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, “That’s going to make climate change worse. It’s a little bit of a feedback loop.”

That being said, Dessler feels air conditioning is a human right, which is a growing view. AC will only become more necessary as the climate warms. Ideally, countries will move off fossil fuels as quickly as possible, so higher energy demands don’t worsen climate change. Then, people can keep their homes and businesses at a comfortable temperature.

[Related: How to protect your children during heat waves.]

“AC is something we need. There are a lot of places in the US. and around the world where if you didn’t have air conditioning there would be ghost towns,” Dessler says. He says large parts of Texas, where he lives, need air conditioning to remain habitable. 

Places like Spain limiting how low a business can set its thermostat or states like Texas asking people to reduce energy use during a heat wave to protect the grid can cause real problems for residents. “People lived in Texas before air conditioning, but you just lived differently,” Dessler says. “They built their houses to be well-ventilated. There were designs for breezes to run through the house.”

In parts of the world where extreme heat is commonplace, homes are often designed to be well-ventilated and promote airflow to keep things cool. In the Middle East, a courtyard might funnel in a breeze and provide shade. Water fixtures and plants might provide cooling effects. Suppose we redesigned our homes and buildings to allow for better airflow, painted buildings lighter colors to reflect sunlight, and strategically placed windows and columns of air. In that case, homes could require less air conditioning to stay cool during extreme heat. 

“Nobody designs their house like that today because everyone in Texas has a house that’s closed, sealed and air conditioned,” he adds. “In the long run, you can design a city to do better in hot temperatures.”

Though these heat waves have been breaking records, Dessler says that doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise. As far as we know, climate change isn’t moving faster than climate scientists have predicted in their climate models. 

“The global average temperature is warming exactly as predicted. Predicting heat waves, which are local events on a very short timescale, is much harder to do,” Dessler says. “You obviously can do it with a model, and in general, the magnitude of these heat waves is not too far off from what the models predict.”

The world is going to need more and more air conditioning, and Dessler says that solar and wind are easier and more affordable to install than they’ve ever been before. Hence, countries need to build up renewable energy and get off fossil fuels so that increased energy demands don’t worsen climate change. 

If you’re worried about how your energy use contributes to climate change, you might want to get your community to start a microgrid or even consider installing a heat pump in your home. But in the meantime, shut down unnecessary appliances, strategically place fans, block sunlight, and manage your home’s humidity to help keep things cool without blasting the AC.



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