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News / Nation & World

Europe’s record heatwave is changing minds about the value of air conditioning

By Rick Noack, The Washington Post
Published: June 28, 2019, 9:29am

BERLIN — A sizzling heat wave this week is fueling a shift in attitude in Europe to the once foreign concept of air conditioning, as successive brutally hot summers have forced Europeans to reckon with an ceaseless spike in global temperatures from climate change.

In Germany, you can – quite literally – feel the change in the air.

Residents are sharing maps on social media of air-conditioned buildings and cafes in their area, fans and portable cooling systems are sold out, employers are worried the lack of cooling is killing productivity and at least one Berlin air conditioning installer suspended their phone service citing a flood of calls, according to a recorded voice message.

“We’re being inundated with requests,” said another air conditioning installer, Maximilian Schichtl, in Munich.

These scenarios would be unusual anywhere in air conditioning skeptical Europe, but they’re especially rare in Germany, where sweaty locals have long puzzled over Americans’ love for excessively cold air conditioning.

Until now, less than 5% of all European households are air-conditioned, compared to 90% in the United States. But Europe’s air conditioner stock is estimated to roughly double within the next two decades, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), as record heat becomes more frequent and prolonged due to climate change.

On a continent that has long shrugged off air conditioning as unnecessary and where doctors still debate its potentially harmful side-effects, this week’s quest to find cooler air may foreshadow a drastic change in Europeans’ relationship to the air conditioner. Dirk Trembich, the head of the “Berliner Klima” air conditioning company, said interest began to surge in April 2018 – ahead of a record-hot summer. Demand still hasn’t faded.

Even over Christmas, Trembich said, people kept calling to have units installed. His company’s wait-list grows by up to 50 customers per day, he claimed.

Companies have shown a growing interest in installing air conditioning, fearing high temperatures are impacting productivity, saying employees are more likely to make errors if they’re hot.

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For regular people, the growing acceptance of air conditioning in their homes is an acknowledgment of a worrisome fact: climate change is here to stay.

Last week, after predictions of the impending heat wave, sales of fans and air conditioners surged across Europe, including in France and Austria. In Germany, the U.S. military said it was examining whether new temperature records would require the installation of new air conditioners, Stars and Stripes reported.

Those changes may come close to a cooling revolution in Europe. But by a global standard, the movement toward cooling is marginal.

Europe’s estimated increase in overall demand in the coming years is expected to be dwarfed by other parts of the world, especially India, Indonesia and China. Fans and air conditioners already account for 10 percent of electricity consumption, but the IEA predicts that the associated energy demand could triple over the next three decades, unless units becomes significantly more energy-efficient.

European air conditioners are already among the world’s most efficient. Still, their environmental footprint could make Europe’s debate over the need for better cooling even more heated than it has been in the past. By trying to escape the impact of climate change, its critics argue, air conditioner consumers may end up making global warming worse.

Air conditioners’ energy consumption was among the reasons cited when German officials in the city of Dusseldorf recently rejected proposals to install cooling systems. Like most buildings in one of the world’s richest nations, German schools are not usually air-conditioned, which means that students are sent home early on especially hot days.

But the hesitancy among some Germans to embrace air conditioning is justified, said Veit Burger, deputy energy and climate action head of Germany’s Institute for Applied Ecology. Periods of heat often coincided with stiller-than-usual air, resulting in less wind energy being produced and an increased demand for polluting coal energy instead, he said. This combination could make air conditioning during the summer especially challenging, given European targets to cut emissions.

Instead, he urged a more concerted effort to design “buildings in a way that minimizes the need” for air conditioning, through better insulation.

Air conditioning’s unpopularity in Europe is not entirely based on climate change concerns. For some, it is simply not worth the effort. On most days, summers in some parts of Europe can still feel more like mild winters to Texas or Arizona residents.

Then, there are the health concerns. German health insurance providers and doctors frequently caution that air conditioning can make humans more vulnerable to catching colds and may expose people suffering from allergies to mold. One of Germany’s largest health insurance providers, Barmer, released a warning last year and compared air conditioners’ “cold shock” to “weather extremes,” such as thunderstorms, which may worsen “sleep disorders, headache or circulatory problems.”

Instead, public health officials said, Germans should consider opening their windows in the morning, dress accordingly and drink sufficiently.

But Trembich, the air conditioning installer, said that well-maintained and appropriately-programmed systems were designed to avoid such side-effects. Unlike in the United States, for instance, German systems usually only lower the temperature by a few degrees, to avoid exposing consumers to drastic temperature changes and to save energy.

Record hot summers – including a heat wave that killed 15,000 people in France in 2003 – have prompted a rethink.

Schichtl, the cooling system salesman, said consumers were increasingly concluding “that relying on AC’s is actually healthier” than battling the heat without one.