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Expand chart
Reproduced from IEA, Future of Cooling report; Chart: Axios Visuals

The International Energy Agency forecast Tuesday that the number of air conditioners in buildings worldwide will more than triple by 2050, reaching 5.6 billion as demand surges in India, China and elsewhere.

Why it matters: Absent major efficiency gains, the added power demand will make it much harder to achieve the kind of worldwide carbon emissions cuts that would be needed to ward off potentially catastrophic warming levels.

The amount of energy needed for cooling will triple, reaching a level equal to China's total power demand, the new report finds. As the world warms in response to human-caused climate change, the need for air conditioning will become more acute, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia.

  • IEA estimates that left unchecked, air conditioning will account for 18 percent of the total worldwide increase in CO2 emissions by 2050.
  • And rising demand for cooling is "already putting enormous strain on electricity systems in many countries," IEA said.

The big picture: The report shows the immense challenge of increasing the health and well-being of billions of people, especially in increasingly hot places where air conditioning remains rare, while stemming emissions at the same time.

One level deeper: Air conditioning now accounts for about one-fifth of electricity used in buildings. IEA's "baseline" scenario, which models existing policies and targets, projects that by 2050 . . .

  • Cooling will account for 40 percent of the growth in power demand in buildings, and represents the second-biggest driver of all global electricity growth.
  • Even as the global power mix becomes less carbon-intensive as reliance on coal decreases, emissions from fossil-fueled generation associated with cooling need will double. That's in part because India — where cooling use soars — will still be using lots and lots of coal.
  • Cooling will account for 15 percent of all power-related carbon emissions.

What they recommend: The report lays out an "efficient cooling scenario" that greatly slows the amount of energy demand growth that accompanies expanded access to air conditioning.

It involves steps like stronger performance standards, better labeling, more global cooperation and greater use of incentives.

Under their scenario, power demand for cooling still grows over the next three decades, but by 2050 the energy needed is still half of what it would be under their "baseline" forecast.

“With rising incomes, air conditioner ownership will skyrocket, especially in the emerging world. While this will bring extra comfort and improve daily lives, it is essential that efficiency performance for ACs be prioritized. Standards for the bulk of these new ACs are much lower than where they should be."
— IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol

Go deeper

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
3 mins ago - Technology

AI could end foreign-language subtitles

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

AI companies are developing methods to translate and synthesize voices in ads, movies and TV.

Why it matters: The advances in voice synthesis could help fix bad movie dubbing — and they come as international content is becoming increasingly important to studios and streaming platforms as part of the globalization of entertainment.

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
Updated 9 hours ago - Technology

A dark view of the future of autonomous weapons

A still from the video "If Human: Kill ( )." Image: Future of Life Institute

A new short film warns of the coming risks posed by the development and proliferation of lethal autonomous weapons.

Why it matters: Drones with the ability to autonomously target and kill without the assistance of a human operator are reportedly already being used on battlefields, and time is running out to craft a global ban of what could be a destabilizing and terrifying new class of weapon.

Updated 10 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus variant surveillance varies widely by state — Omicron cases confirmed in 5 U.S. states America probably won't lead the effort to understand Omicron.
  2. Vaccines: Omicron adds urgency to vaccinating world — Omicron fuels the case for COVID boosters — Moderna loses patent battles tied to COVID vaccine — Pfizer could have vaccine data for children under five by end of 2021, CEO says.
  3. Politics: Nevada to impose insurance surcharge on unvaccinated state workers — New Jersey GOP lawmakers defy statehouse COVID policy — Oklahoma sues Biden administration over Pentagon vaccine mandate — Omicron travel bans are sign of what's to come.
  4. World: WHO: Delta health measures help fight Omicron — COVID cases surge in South Africa in sign Omicron wave is coming — Germany approves new restrictions for unvaccinated people.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.