Why Bit coin and a rush to air-conditioning in India can rip your future climate. From the Rocky Mountain Institute, Iain Campbell reports the global cooling challenge. Scientist Randi Rollins from University of Hawaii explains Bit coin so we can all understand – and why digital currency can warm the world another half a degree by 2050.
You should worry about methane in the Arctic, or the end of the Amazon rainforest. But room air-conditioners or Bit coin? Welcome to the deadly details on Radio Ecoshock.
World leaders get dire warnings about the climate, as they will this week at COP24 in Poland. But even those grim charts are low-ball estimates of the real heat coming real fast. So much is left out, and as we discover from new research this week. Just two of many growing technologies can push up the global thermostat. Half a degree more from billions more room air-conditioners; half a degree more from the digital currency Bit coin, and pretty soon it adds up to real Hell. Let’s find out how the unintended consequences of small tech could push us off the climate cliff, with our guests Iain Campbell and Randi Rollins.
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HOW AIR-CONDITIONING MAKES CLIMATE CHANGE WORSE – IAIN CAMPBELL
When I traveled through India in 1979, there were hardly any air-conditioners. Now in this warmer world, millions of people have moved from rural villages to cities. Little room air-conditioners sprout like mushrooms from every wall. According to a new report, that is just the start, in China, India and all over the world, as humans try to cool themselves off on a hotter planet.
The Rocky Mountain Institute warns room air-conditioners alone could warm Earth by half a degree by the year 2100. Unless we can find a better way, that is half a degree over the edge into climate disaster. Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson is offering three million dollars to find better AC technology.
To explore this climate threat you have not heard about, we have Iain Campbell on the line. Iain is a Senior Fellow at the Rocky Mountain Institute, and lead author of the report “Solving the Global Cooling Challenge“.
Iain Campbell, RMI
There have been several reports and projections on the future of room air-conditioners. The latest comes from the International Energy Agency or IEA. It’s called “The Future of Cooling”. The IEA writes:
“Global energy demand from air conditioners is expected to triple by 2050, requiring new electricity capacity the equivalent to the combined electricity capacity of the United States, the EU and Japan today. The global stock of air conditioners in buildings will grow to 5.6 billion by 2050, up from 1.6 billion today – which amounts to 10 new ACs sold every second for the next 30 years, according to the report.”
HEARING FROM INDIA
Iain just returned from India. Dr. Harsh Vardhan, Minister of Science & Technology and Earth Science, Government of India wrote the forward to this report from the Rocky Mountain Institute. He says India has “the lowest penetration of air conditioning across the world today. This is set to change quickly as rising per capita income, rapid urbanization and a largely tropical climate will drastically drive up the demand for cooling.”
This Indian Minister warns we need a climate-safe way of cooling, or India’s transition to air-conditioning alone could be a factor adding to global warming. In September 2018, India became one of the first countries “to launch a national cooling action plan (India Cooling Action Plan).”
When we think about it, part of the transition from an agricultural society to an industrialized on is the “interiorization” of masses of people. We come indoors to work, in transit, at home. The often means adding air conditioners in a warming tropics. Also, with less food local and immediate from harvest, we are going to invest much more in cooling: cold rooms in warehouses, air-conditioned trucks, cooler homes – to keep food.
Back in 2010, I interviewed American author Stan Cox about his book “Losing Our Cool”. His research suggested higher power use and nasty refrigerants in AC could add another 20% to world emissions. Find a transcript of that interview with Stan Cox here, or listen to the audio interview here.
TWO WAYS A/C DRIVES GLOBAL WARMING
According to this RMI report “the residential sector alone is set to account for an over 0.5º C increase in global temperatures by 2100“.
So we break down the climate impact of air-conditioning into two main factors. The first is the power burned, which likely comes from coal power in many parts of the world like China, India and Arizona.
The second climate factor with AC is the refrigerant being used. I was a working environmentalist when the Montreal Protocol drove CFC’s out of refrigeration in the late 1980’s. The industry came up with an alternative cooling chemical, less damaging to the ozone layer, but that had a new problem. The newer “HFCs” were powerful global warming gases. Groups like Greenpeace pointed this out, but it was a battle against chemical companies like DuPont (who issued press releases saying over a hundred million people would die without refrigerants like CFCs). The industry had a the new HFCs lined up (to sell at a higher price) and they were determined on that solution. In the early 1990’s, “global warming” seemed like a distant problem to solve a hundred years later. Not so much.
Trying to cut out global warming by refrigerants, we have an agreement nobody has heard of. I ask Iain Campbell to explain what “the Kigali Amendment To The Montreal Protocol” is, and why it matters.
I was surprised to read that the average room air-conditioner in China is more efficient than what Americans buy. Apparently that is because “mini-split” and “inverter” air conditioners, with variable controls on the compressor, are more popular in China, instead of the “box in a window” design sold in the U.S. Almost all air-conditioners are made in China, but Americans want the cheapest model they can find. So Americans use more power for A/C, and pay more than they need to, while warming the world.
Of course it’s inevitable that as heat waves strike, or the average summer is just one big heat wave, more than a billion more people will want air-conditioners as soon as they can get one. It’s right up there as a priority purchase, maybe right after a refrigerator (which has many of the same problems). It’s one of those terrible feed-back loops, where the worse it gets, the worse we make it.
Here is how author Stan Cox describes the situation (in his book “Losing Our Cool”):
“In 2008, analysts at Hamburg University of Technology in Germany considered the geographical distribution of cooling and heating requirements under two climate-change scenarios, along with the distribution of human population across the globe, and compared those with the current distribution of climates and population.
From this, they projected changes in humanity’s heating and cooling demands. Four decades from now, they concluded, the average citizen of Earth will experience 18 to 25 percent less cold weather and 17 to 23 prevent more hot weather each year, because populations are growing faster in warm regions of the planet, and all regions will become warmer. Taking population growth into account, cooling demand will rise by 65 to 72 percent.”
As Yessenia Funes writes in Gizmodo: “By 2100, up to 74 percent of the world’s population could be exposed to deadly temperatures for at least 20 days a year, per a 2017 study published in Nature.” Of course, that study “Global risk of deadly heat” was led by Dr. Camilo Mora from the University of Hawaii. Find my blog on that here.
THERE ARE SOME ALTERNATIVES TO AIRCONDITIONING EVERYTHING!
Iain Campbell’s previous work was with Johnson Control, a multi-billion dollar provider in the Heating, Ventilation and Air-Conditioning Industry. He knows we are cooling everything from giant office towers to shopping malls to football stadiums. Why does this new report from Rocky Mountain Institute focus exclusively on small room air-conditioners? Because that is where the most air-conditioning is sold, and that is where the big expansion is already underway. We could end up with more centralized more efficient units, piped out to homes, but that is not the direction the world is taking.
There are other alternatives that step much more lightly on the Earth. You can power a small A/C unit from a solar panel – check out You tube videos from people who have done it. But unless you have large batteries, that won’t help you sleep on those sizzling hot nights. Evaporative coolers (“swamp coolers”) work in dry areas, and they use no refrigerants, and only need power for a fan to work. We need a lot more of those, but they won’t work in the humid tropics.
Where I live, the older homes have full basements with tiny windows, that stay cool even in the hottest days. That’s another solutions for some folks. I fully expect to see more of humanity heading underground as the surface gets too hot. That is how our original mammal ancestors (tiny, like mice) survived severe global warming many eons ago.
At the very least, we must stop running A/C from coal! That is what is happening in India, most of Asia, and even in the United States (Arizona!!) and Germany. Installing renewables could greatly lighten the load from all those A/C units.
But we don’t have the golden solution for the billions of people who want it, and soon will need it. That is why the Rocky Mountain Institute is providing the Global Cooling Challenge. They already had interest from some major manufacturers. It’s also possible someone in a garage may invent one. The Challenge offers serious development and testing dollars to designs that look good, and then a prize for the winner. Let’s hope it appears, before we add ANOTHER half a degree to an already hot planet.
ALEX WORRIES TOO MUCH
Suppose I come up with a new type of air-conditioner that doesn’t use global warming gases, and requires much less energy. I win this global cooling challenge, and industry pumps out new-design AC units. But then we have the “Jevons Paradox”, where greater efficiency leads to great use. What stops another billion homes installing the new AC, multiplying total power use far beyond the worst projections?
I worry that instead of moving away from fuels that ruin the atmosphere, we will just keep adapting to the damages. If we all move inside, to so called “climate-controlled” environments, we head toward the dystopia that Director Terry Gilliam portrayed in his 1985 movie “Brazil“. What if better technology is not the answer to climate change?
Even if the RMI and Branson challenge creates a super-efficient, more climate-friendly air conditioner, those units will still pump heat from inside buildings to city streets. What about the “heat island” effect? Recall my interview with the Australian academic Dr. Mat Santamouris who measured wildly hot spots in the city of Darwin in northern Australia. Dr. Santamouris has great suggestions on ways we can plan and build our cities cooler – not using A/C. Find my blog and audio links on that here.
This is not the first tech prize offered by Branson. His Virgin Earth Challenge offered $25 million for a commercially viable way to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Eleven years later, the prize has not been awarded, although there are 11 finalists under consideration. Two of them have been guests on this program (Alan Savory and David Keith). So the idea of funding a savior technology has not worked so far. And let’s face it: this challenge is not yet playing to win. The Cooling Challenge is trying to find a better way to do less damage.
I love all the facts and figures in this report “Solving the Global Cooling Challenge”. It is in plain English, with lots of good graphs. Anybody could read it at rmi.org, and I hope you will. But the ending is a little frustrating. They don’t provide a great solution – and that’s because we don’t have one yet. Download this RMI report as a free .pdf file here.
BIT COIN CAN WARM THE WORLD BY HALF A DEGREE – RANDI ROLLINS
Bit coin and “block chain” are breaking tech used by a growing public, even though few of us understand how cryptocurrency works. Now we find out even this new money can be a threat to our future climate.
Let me just read from this University of Hawaii press release, quote:
“A new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change finds that if Bit coin is implemented at similar rates at which other technologies have been incorporated, it alone could produce enough emissions to raise global temperatures by 2°C as soon as 2033.”
2033! If true, that’s shocking stuff! To find out more we’ve reached a co-author of the new study, Masters student Randi Rollins. Randi is co-author of a new paper in Nature Climate Change titled “Bit coin emissions alone could push global warming above 2°C”.
Randi Rollins, University of Hawaii
You will find an explanation of both bit coin and blockchain technology in this interview. The University of Hawaii press release says:
“Bit coin purchases create transactions that are recorded and processed by a group of individuals referred to as miners. Miners group every Bit coin transaction made during a specific time frame into a block. Blocks are then added to the chain, which is the public ledger. The verification process by miners, who compete to decipher a computationally demanding proof-of-work in exchange for bitcoins, requires large amounts of electricity.”
“The team found that if Bit coin is incorporated, even at the slowest rate at which other technologies have been incorporated, its cumulative emissions will be enough to warm the planet above 2°C in just 22 years. If incorporated at the average rate of other technologies, it is closer to 16 years.”
“Currently, the emissions from transportation, housing and food are considered the main contributors to ongoing climate change. This research illustrates that Bit coin should be added to this list,” said Katie Taladay, a UH Manoa master’s student and coauthor of the paper.”
NOT SO GREEN CURRENCY
In an interview for National Public Radio, Douglas McCauley suggests environmentalists like the block chain tech behind bit coin. It could help track many complex things, like carbon emissions or reforestation. Should people accept cryptocurrency and blockchain as the “next big thing” – as a way to even help the planet? Apparently the tech-hip Greens have not heard this latest research from the University of Hawaii.
At this time, the big retailers like Amazon and Wal mart are not accepting bit coin when we shop. What happens when they do? Looking on Amazon, I can buy a bit coin mining computer, the Antminer S9i, for under $600. This new paper reports that in May 2018, the reward for proof-of-work for each Bit coin block would pay out $116,041 US for just 10 minutes of computing time. According to digiconomist.net a site that tracks such things, 23% of that pay-out is profit. That’s a big profit margin. It’s a wonder every server farm in the world converting to processing bit coin data. Many have gone that way, and far too many are powered by coal!
BIT COIN: WILL IT CRASH OR GROW?
A sub-set of this paper is very interesting on it’s own. This team investigated the adoption rates of 40 technologies – how fast they penetrated into society, and what percentage of the population used them. We are talking everything from color TVs to power steering to smart phones. The figures you used for the United States alone. Adoption rates by larger populations, like India, China or Brazil may be faster than in the United States, or may be slower. But either way, we are talking about billions or people!
One criticism of crypto-currencies, and bit coin in particular, is that it can evade government monitoring or control, and thus be used to move money made by crime or corruption. I would think if crime or corruption increases, that might push more bit coins, and thus add to global warming. A second strange possibility is that instead of crashing, bit coin starts to replace national currencies. In fact, the dollar, Yen or any currency might crash badly, so the population flees to bit coin. Economic difficulties may push the warming footprint of bit coin as well.
Here is one thing I like about this new paper: so often when a new technology appears, nobody asks “Hey what happens if this really succeeds” – and often the answer to that question is not good. The chart of how technologies advance is fascinating.
A REPORT BACK FROM RADIO ECOSHOCK
In addition to our radio audience around the world, my California fire special blog resulted in over 8,000 audio downloads. Our guest Maria Gilardin, host of TUC Radio, reports the fires are mostly out, after an atmospheric river almost drowned California. If those rains had come two weeks earlier, hundreds of lives might have been saved in Paradise. Sometimes climate change can lengthen a season by two weeks, or delay rains. And that is how much two weeks can matter.
Last we talked, Maria doesn’t want to try the mud-soaked roads at the ranch. Without trees, the burned hills are slipping, carbon is running into every creek, and local rivers are running black. The spotlight of world media will move on, but for a lot of folks in northern California, there is no where to move to, except to move away. Now it is Australia’s turn in the climate barrel. The East coast experienced record heat, and then fires to large and too fast for anyone to control. As the world warms, and winds shift, the Earth becomes more flammable.
Expanding Australia coal sales will kill millions of people and create millions of climate refugees. On Friday November 30th, thousands of Australian students walked out of class to protest government inaction on climate. Give them power and let it spread. What are you going to do?
Radio Ecoshock appears to be blocked in China (there are a few downloads, probably from government agencies. That is a shame, since everyone who can understand English can hear the best scientists in the world explain their work directly. Please China, let this signal in!
As 2018 draws to a close, over my 13 years of broadcasting this program, you and I have taken the climate message, and defence of the living world, to millions of people, and to every country. Next week I’ll have some alternative voices from the climate talks in Katowice Poland. You know, not the official pronouncements, but the real news about our situation.
The music for this show is “Mother Earth Is Under the Weather Right Now” by Canadian musician Shane Philip. Thank you Shane, I’ve used this as a kind of theme song for many shows. Tune in to Shane Philip here.
Thank you to the people who responded to my fundraising plea. There is now enough in the Radio Ecoshock bank account to fund the program over the perilous Christmas holiday down time. But if you find my work useful, please add your donation.