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Higher temperatures could fuel a global energy demand to stay cool

A fan blowing on Earth to cool it down
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A new peer-reviewed study finds that higher temperatures could bring large increases in energy demand as use of cooling soars, far outweighing reduced need for heating.

Why it matters: The paper published in Nature Communications finds that depending on future warming levels, global demand in 2050 could be 11%–58% higher than what's otherwise expected based on economic development and population growth.

One level deeper: While the total and regional ranges are significant, the paper notes: "We find broad agreement among [Earth System Models] that energy demand rises by more than 25% in the tropics and southern regions of the USA, Europe and China."

What's new: "These are the first globally comprehensive estimates of how much energy demand will change due to the increase in temperatures that is projected to happen, not just globally averaged but depending on where around the globe different climate models say it is going to be hotter rather than colder compared to the global mean,” Boston University professor and co-author Ian Sue Wing tells Axios.

My thought bubble: The paper underscores a sticky problem. Adapting to warming could make cutting emissions even harder if those higher energy needs aren't met with low-carbon sources.

  • The paper — co-authored by researchers with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and Ca’ Foscari University of Venice — does not model how additional demand will be met.
  • "The emissions story is going to depend on how we choose to generate that additional electricity,” Sue Wing said.

What they did: The study is a global and regional look at potential warming-driven energy demand increases in 2050, looking at use of electricity, petroleum and natural gas in four sectors: industry, housing, business and agriculture.

They modeled a large set of potential outcomes based on 2 major emissions scenarios commonly employed by scientists.

  • One shows emissions soaring essentially unchecked through the century, enabling large temperature increases.
  • The other is an emissions peak around 2040, follow by a plateau and decline, which still brings significant warming.

But, but, but: The authors acknowledge limitations in the modeling and the need for future research.

  • Their analysis does not consider factors including changes in energy prices that could dampen energy demand growth, technological improvements, policy changes and more localized energy demand responses.

Go deeper: A/C demand expected to triple