- Rising global temperatures and an increase in air conditioning usage may result in increased air pollution and consequent health risks due to more fossil fuels being used to power AC units.
- Projections indicate an additional 1,000 annual deaths in the eastern United States by 2050 due to this escalating air pollution, posing an impending public health crisis.
- Although air conditioning offers a life-saving solution to combat heatwaves, there’s a detrimental trade-off of heightened health risks from increased air pollution.
- Increased fine particulate matter and ozone pollution due to fossil fuel-dependent air conditioning could result in thousands more deaths annually.
- A potential solution lies in a shift to sustainable energy sources like solar and wind power, combined with the development of energy-efficient air conditioning.
As the planet continues to experience climate change and rising temperatures, an increase in the use of air conditioning systems is projected. This surge may consequently result in heightened health risks due to escalated air pollution, according to a recent study.
The Study’s Projections and Their Implications
The study anticipates an additional 1,000 annual deaths in the eastern United States alone by 2050. These deaths are predicted to result from increased air pollution levels as more fossil fuels are utilized by power plants to meet the burgeoning demand for air conditioning.
“We’re already confronting climate change and adaptation is imperative,” stated the study’s primary investigator David Abel. He further noted that the way energy is being consumed for air conditioning might exacerbate air contamination as the temperatures increase.
Abel, a postgraduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute for Environmental Studies’ Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment, along with his team, based their forecasts on projections combined from five distinct models.
Unfortunately, what their findings indicate, Abel contends in a university press release, is a worsening future for air pollution. “Adapting to the changing climate is bound to have repercussions,” he added.
Trade-Offs and Potential Solutions
While air conditioning offers a live-saving solution in dealing with escalating heatwaves, there’s a trade-off: rising air pollution presents increased health risks. Jonathan Patz, the study’s senior author and professor of environmental studies and population health sciences at UW-Madison, suggests we’re essentially exchanging one problem for another.
Dr. Satjit Bhusri, a New York-based cardiologist, concurs with the study’s conclusions, acknowledging the direct link between air pollutants and body inflammation. As contaminated air is inhaled into the lungs, the subsequent inflammation could damage the arteries supplying blood and oxygen to both heart and brain.
The Climate-Health Connection
Bhusri, who was not involved in the new study, believes that, “Global warming has a significant link to heart health, and it is not favorable”.
As long as dependence on fossil fuels remains significant, the situation painted by the Wisconsin team appears mostly inevitable, Patz argues. “We’re experiencing more intense and frequent heatwaves. Consequently, we’ll need more cooling, which requires more power. If we continue to operate coal-fired plants for part of our power supply, turning on the AC might mean tainting the air more, causing higher incidences of diseases, and even death.”
By mid-century, rising summer levels of fine particulate matter in air pollution could result in an estimated additional 13,000 deaths annually, and ozone pollution could cause another 3,000 deaths each year in the eastern US.
About 1,000 of these projected deaths could be attributed to air conditioning powered by fossil fuels. Therefore, the researchers advocate greater reliance on sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar power, and the development of more energy-efficient air conditioning.
“The remedy is clean energy,” Abel suggested, highlighting that this is within human control and could alleviate both future climate change and air pollution. “If we don’t change our habits, both predicaments will worsen.” The study’s findings were shared in PLoS Medicine.
The U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences offers more on the health implications of air pollution.