In India’s desert state of Rajasthan, where temperatures frequently reach 40 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit), the heat can be exhausting and difficult to escape.
“Most supermarkets have air conditioning,” said Kakul Misra, a self-employed accountant. “In the shops and buildings that don’t have cooling systems, you really feel the heat.”
Indians like Misra are on the front line of the battle against rising global temperatures. The nation of 1.3 billion people is one of the most vulnerable to climate change. Heat waves kill thousands of people every decade. Ahmedabad, a city in the western state of Gujarat, lost more than 1,300 people in 2010 when temperatures hit 47 degrees Celsius.
At the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, countries are in the midst of crunch talks designed to cut emissions and stem global warming. But it will take decades for those measures to have a tangible impact on temperatures on the ground. In the meantime, countries such as India have to figure out how to deal with the deadly heat that’s already baked in.
The obvious temptation is more air conditioning. Developing countries lag far behind advanced economies in deploying cooling technologies and the Indian market is set to reach $11 billion by 2023, a TechSci Research report showed. Still, India will take until 2050 to fit air conditioning into half of its households. In contrast, at least nine in 10 homes in the U.S., Japan and Taiwan already have cooling technology, according to BloombergNEF data.
And the fix comes with more downsides for the planet. Air conditioning works by removing warm air from inside a building and pumping it outside, while bringing cool air back into the room. The energy-intensive process may triple power consumption across the world by midcentury, according to the International Energy Agency. Ten new units are set to be sold every second globally for the next 30 years, with torrid Indonesia and Vietnam making the biggest jumps.
If the energy that powers these air conditioners continues to come from fossil fuels, it will only add heat-trapping emissions. Air conditioners also rely on cycling hydrofluorocarbons, a superpotent greenhouse gas often released to the atmosphere at the end of the device’s life. The International Energy Agency has warned that without intervention, emissions from hydrofluorocarbons and energy use could rise 90% above 2017 levels by midcentury.
Too much air-conditioning will also exacerbate air pollution because more fossil fuels are burned, says Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute. In India, cities often turn to dirty diesel generators in the summer when the grids are maxed out. Toxic air kills an estimated 7 million people every year, and is responsible for about 18% of all deaths in India, according to a report by the Lancet, a British medical journal.
Instead, Lovins says, the best way to keep a country cool in an affordable, climate-friendly way is through integrative design and urban planning. The key is to focus on cooling people rather than buildings.
“In practically every part of the world, there are traditional architectures designed for hot, human conditions,” Lovins said, pointing to historic designs such as thick stone walls and clay firebricks. “If we give those more attention and respect, we can apply them to today’s buildings and save between 90% and 100% of energy.”
Madeleine Edl, an energy efficiency specialist at UN Environment, says the world should look to lower-income countries for inspiration. Edl lived in Niger, a West African country which lies in the Sahara Desert, for three years. She regularly passed families taking shelter from the heat in houses built with clay and metal roofs.
“We need to think about how the whole building is constructed,” she said. The more air-conditioning is used, the more greenhouse gases — leading to increased temperatures and even more cooling devices. “The vicious cycle of cooling must be broken,” Edl said.
On Nov. 4, the air quality in Rajasthan’s capital, Jaipur, was 15 times worse than in Glasgow, where COP26 negotiators are embroiled in complex talks. Pollutants in Jaipur’s air were two times higher than the World Health Organization’s recommended limit. The hazardous air underscores the danger facing millions of people right now even as diplomats focus on cutting emissions over the coming decades.
Cloaked by the smog that shrouds the colorful buildings that give Jaipur its “Pink City” nickname, tech giant Infosys Ltd. is trying to keep its headquarters cool.
The building employs strategies such as having a low window-to-wall ratio, which helps prevent heat from building up inside while allowing tons of sunshine in. Ankur Sharma, a senior systems engineer, has worked across several of the company’s offices across the country and says the design helps him stay comfortable.
“The campuses are cool and the buildings are constructed in a way that requires no lights to be switched on until nighttime,” he said. But Sharma is one of the lucky ones. “The majority of buildings and shops in Jaipur do not have that level of infrastructure,” he said.