Keeping cool on a hotter planet
China, the world's biggest manufacturer, consumer and exporter of air conditioners, is leading efforts to increase clean cooling the world over
With the advent of summer, the whir of air conditioners can be heard across China. Few people might be aware that keeping indoor spaces cool is a growing driver of global warming. Fewer still are aware how technology and policy upgrades in China can help reduce the environmental impact of air conditioning around the world.
The global climate community is now taking action. The goal is to increase the energy efficiency of the world's air conditioning units, so that they can continue keeping people cool while minimizing energy use and carbon emissions. China, as the world's biggest manufacturer, consumer and exporter of air conditioners, is helping to lead the world in this effort.
According to the International Energy Agency, the approximately 2 billion air conditioning units in operation around the world were responsible for 994 million tons of CO2 emissions in 2021.These emissions are growing every year, as the living standard of people in the world's developing economies continues to improve. By 2050, there will be nearly 6 billion air conditioning units in use worldwide.
Air conditioning, also referred to as space cooling, leads to greenhouse gas emissions via energy consumption. Cooling indoor spaces accounts for almost 20 percent of the electricity used in buildings. In China's large and medium-sized cities, air conditioning in summer accounts for about 60 percent of the peak electricity load, which is the period of time when demand for electricity is highest.
In 2019, China's National Development and Reform Commission and other departments jointly issued the "National Clean Cooling Action Plan". The plan is to improve overall energy efficiency levels of cooling products, such as household air conditioners, by more than 25 percent, and increase the market share of green and high-efficiency cooling products by more than 40 percent by 2030.
The following year, in 2020, China raised the minimum energy efficiency standards for two types of air conditioners used in residential and commercial buildings. It created a more ambitious set of five new energy efficiency levels designed to transform the market toward more energy efficient units. The new standards also provided a more comprehensive and accurate assessment of the energy efficiency of air conditioning products and widened the scope of efficiency requirements to include other cooling products.
Since the implementation of these new standards, the market share of high energy-efficiency air conditioning products has significantly increased in China. In the fourth quarter of 2021, air conditioners with the highest energy efficiency level accounted for 56 percent of the market, followed by those with the third-highest level, which accounted for 40.5 percent. Meanwhile, air conditioning products with energy efficiency levels lower than the new standards have practically been eliminated from the market.
Not only is this transformation of China's air conditioner market leading to significant energy-saving and greenhouse gas emissions reduction, it is helping to avoid the lock-in effect of low energy-efficiency products, promoting the stability of the electricity grid, and strengthening energy security.
China's ratcheting up of energy efficiency standards for air conditioners has also driven the upgrading of the air conditioner industry. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and a challenging international trade environment, China's air conditioning companies such as GREE, Midea and Haier have pushed forward with technological innovation and leadership. This is key to maintaining competitiveness going forward, and is in line with China's strategy to promote the high-quality development of its industrial enterprises.
These policy advances are good not only for local carbon reduction and industrial upgrading efforts, but the experience can also be shared with other countries to promote the overall improvement of global air conditioning energy efficiency levels.
China is a big player in the global air conditioner market. Between September 2020 and August 2021, the global production of room air conditioners reached 188 million units. China is a major consumer, accounting for about 60 percent of the global market, but it is also the main supplier of air conditioning units to the rest of the world. Eighty-two percent of the world's air conditioning units are manufactured in China. For this reason, the energy efficiency levels of air conditioners in China's domestic market have a crucial impact on the overall energy efficiency level of household air conditioners around the world.
An Energy Foundation China-funded study by China IOL, a China-based research consultancy, found that China's air conditioner export trends are shaped by the different climatic conditions, levels of economic development, energy efficiency standards, and consumer usage habits in importing countries. In a sample of 18 countries to which China exports air conditioners, China IOL found that in 2021, air conditioning units meeting China's top two energy efficiency levels accounted for 34 percent of exports. These units were mainly shipped to countries such as Japan, Australia, Italy, Spain and the United States. Exports of units below China's fifth, and lowest, energy efficiency level accounted for 36.6 percent, some flowing to countries with lax energy efficiency standards such as Brazil and South Africa, but most going to countries with no energy efficiency standards, such as Pakistan, Paraguay, Kazakhstan, Algeria and Myanmar.
China's experiences can be a useful reference point for countries that want to strengthen their air conditioning industrial policy or upgrade their energy efficiency standards. This can be coupled with international exchanges and cooperation. Promising areas of cross-border collaboration include conducting international comparison and analysis of air conditioning energy efficiency standards and test methods, promoting the coordination and mutual recognition of energy efficiency standards between different countries or regions, and providing lower-carbon and more efficient solutions for global product standardization.
In countries that do not yet have energy efficiency standards for room air conditioners, China's air conditioning companies can bolster their green brand image, promote the concept of green energy conservation, and appeal to these countries' low-carbon development goals to influence buyers to choose high-efficiency and energy-saving products.
Ultimately, achieving the low-carbon transformation of the global air conditioning market will require close cooperation between countries. In this effort, China has an opportunity to lead the way.
Hong Jialing is a senior analyst at innovative Green Development Program. Diego Montero is the strategy director at innovative Green Development Program. The authors contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
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