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Air conditioning trend in Europe pushed by urbanisation and climate change 

A new study shows that without adequate and focused policies, many households will rely on air conditioners to adapt to climate change, thereby generating more greenhouse gas emissions.

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While it is more effective to improve thermal insulation in buildings, homes are more likely to invest in AC units over the next 20 years. Image: Artur Maltsau|123rf 

The study, led by Enrica De Cian, professor at University Ca' Foscari Venice and researcher at the Euro-Mediterranean Centre on Climate Change, analyses the dynamics that drive households to adopt air conditioning (AC) and thermal insulation in eight countries, of which five are European, from 1990 to 2040. The study is based on a survey implemented by the OECD on a sample of European families, combined with climatological data.

Besides the important regional differences, and the surge of AC in cities, the study also shows that factors in choosing whether to install an air conditioning unit at home include the wealth of the household, the presence of more vulnerable residents in households, such as children and the elderly, and the typology, the property and state of the home. The environmental awareness of the head of the family, and the household’s habit of putting energy saving behaviours into practice also play a role in decision-making.

Prof De Cian points out that: "Europeans have globally a low inclination for installing air conditioners in their home (20 per cent of households on average) if compared to countries like Japan (90 per cent) and Australia (72 per cent), which should reach 100 per cent in 2040. Climatic and cultural differences, even within the same country, lead to very different adoption rates across households today, and for the next 20 years."

It is predicted that the number of households buying a new AC unit will increase by an average 4.3 per cent between 2011 and 2040 across the five European countries studied. The research shows that urbanisation is more likely to be a factor in this trend rather than climate.

France is a country with typically little inclination for AC, both for cultural and climatic reasons; French citizens have a high preference for thermal insulation, which is fitted in 50 per cent of its dwellings. In 1990, the percentage of households with AC was almost nil, though since 2000 there has been a low but constant increase, reaching 13 per cent in 2011 and a predicted 17.3 per cent in 2040.

Similarly to France, The around 60 per cent of households in the Netherlands are equipped with some sort of thermal insulation. As the number of hot days has increased by 60 per cent between 1990 and 2011, the number of AC units in households has also surged: from 0.5 per cent in 1990 to 14 per cent in 2014 and the study projects a worrying 19 per cent for 2040.

Spain on the other hand – the only Mediterranean country in the study – shows very different characteristics and distributions. Owing to the numerous heatwaves that have taken place countrywide, the five per cent of households with an AC unit in 1990 is likely to become 50 per cent in 2040, while thermal insulation reaches only one-third of the dwellings, and should remain constant.

Being a north-European country, Sweden is traditionally less exposed to recurring heatwaves, but the number of households with AC has nevertheless increased today by 30 times since 2005, and the study projects that this will reach more than one family in five in 2040. This is also one of the countries with more inclination for thermal insulation, with a projection that half of its households will use this method by 2040.

Because of its cultural, territorial and climatic characteristics, the researchers included Switzerland in their analysis. This country has fewer AC units installed today, but it is anticipated they will increase by 50 per cent in the next 20 years, reaching 15 per cent of the households by 2040.

The EU is currently lagging in its scheduled objectives to cut greenhouse gas emissions heavily by 2020 and 2030. Although new buildings consume on an average 40 per cent less energy than old ones, only one per cent of the current stock is of this type in Europe.

"As highlighted by a number of studies, improving thermal insulation of buildings through the adoption of building codes, is among the most effective policy instruments for reducing residential energy consumption and reduce adaptation needs for cooling," explains Filippo Pavanello, co-author of the study and researcher at Ca' Foscari. "New policies should also seek to increase the environmental awareness of the public, as we show that this is an important factor for deciding to install AC in your home and choosing how much to use it."

The study is published in Environmental Science and Policy

Image: Valerii Minhirov|123rf 

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