Xu Wang and Pallav Purohit write about their recent study in which they found that accelerating the transition to climate-friendly and energy-efficient air conditioning in the Chinese residential building sector could expedite building a low-carbon society in China.
China saw the fastest growth worldwide in energy demand for space cooling in buildings over the last two decades, increasing at 13% per year since 2000 and reaching nearly 400 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity consumption in 2017. This growth was largely driven by increasing income and growing demand for thermal comfort. As a result, space cooling accounted for more than 10% of total electricity growth in China since 2010 and around 16% of peak electricity load in 2017. That share can reach as much as 50% of peak electricity demand on extremely hot days, as seen in recent summers. Cooling-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from electricity consumption consequently increased fivefold between 2000 and 2017, given the strong reliance on coal-fired power generation in China .
In our recent publication in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, we used a bottom-up modeling approach to predict the penetration rate of room air conditioners in the residential building sector of China at the provincial level, taking urban-rural heterogeneity into account. Our results reveal that increasing income, growing demand for thermal comfort, and warmer climatic conditions, could drive an increase in the stock of room air conditioners in China from 568 million units in 2015 to 997 million units in 2030, and 1.1 billion units in 2050. In urban China, room air conditioner ownership per 100 households is expected to increase from 114 units in 2015 to 219 units in 2030, and 225 units in 2050, with slow growth after 2040 due to the saturation of room air conditioners in the country’s urban households. Ownership of room air conditioners per 100 households in rural China could increase from 48 units in 2015 to 147 units in 2030 and 208 units in 2050 .
The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer will help protect the climate by phasing down high global warming potential (GWP) hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are commonly used as refrigerants in cooling technologies . Promoting energy efficiency of cooling technologies together with HFC phase-down under the amendment can significantly increase those climate co-benefits. It is in this context that we assessed the co-benefits associated with enhanced energy efficiency improvement of room air conditioners (e.g., using efficient compressors, heat exchangers, valves, etc.) and the adoption of low-GWP refrigerants in air conditioning systems. The annual electricity saving from switching to more efficient room air conditioners using low-GWP refrigerants is estimated at almost 1000 TWh in 2050 when taking account of the full technical energy efficiency potential. This is equivalent to approximately 4% of the expected total energy consumption in the Chinese building sector in 2050, or the avoidance of 284 new coal-fired power plants of 500 MW each.
Our results indicate that the cumulative greenhouse gas mitigation associated with both the electricity savings and the substitution of high-GWP refrigerants makes up 2.6% of total business-as-usual CO2 equivalent emissions in China over the period 2020 to 2050. Therefore, the transition towards the uptake of low-GWP refrigerants is as vital as the energy efficiency improvement of new room air conditioners, which can help and accelerate the ultimate objective of building a low-carbon society in China. The findings further show that reduced electricity consumption could mean lower air pollution emissions in the power sector, estimated at about 8.8% for sulfur dioxide (SO2), 9.4% for nitrogen oxides (NOx), and 9% for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions by 2050 compared with a pre-Kigali baseline.
China can deliver significant energy savings and associated reductions in greenhouse gas and air pollution emissions in the building sector by developing and implementing a comprehensive national policy framework, including legislation and regulation, information programs, and incentives for industry. Energy efficiency and refrigerant standards for room air conditioning systems should be an integral part of such a framework. Training and awareness raising can also ensure proper installation, operation, and maintenance of air conditioning equipment and systems, and mandatory good practice with leakage control of the refrigerant during the use and end-of-life recovery. Improved data collection, research, and cooperation with manufacturers can equally help to identify emerging trends, technology needs, and energy efficiency opportunities that enable sustainable cooling.
 IEA (2019). The Future of Cooling in China: Delivering on Action Plans for Sustainable Air Conditioning, International Energy agency (IEA), Paris.
 Wang X, Purohit P, Höglund Isaksson L, Zhang S, Fang H (2020). Co-benefits of energy-efficient air conditioners in the residential building sector of China, Environmental Science & Technology, 54 (20): 13217–13227 [pure.iiasa.ac.at/16823]
 Purohit P, Höglund-Isaksson L, Dulac J, Shah N, Wei M, Rafaj P, Schöpp W (2020). Electricity savings and greenhouse gas emission reductions from global phase-down of hydrofluorocarbons, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 20 (19): 11305-11327 [pure.iiasa.ac.at/16768]
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA).