Eindhoven University of Technology: The perverse cycle of a warming climate and the rise of air conditioners

“Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,” Noel Coward famously sang in 1931, mocking British colonials who ventured out into the scorching midday sun at the hottest time of day. “The Dutch also still think the sun is their friend,” says researcher Lenneke Kuijer. During the August 2020 heat wave she investigated how Dutch households deal with hot weather. “It’s time for change while it’s still possible,” she believes. “Less air conditioning, more outdoor shading and a different way of dealing with heat.”

The number of tropical days in the Netherlands is increasing rapidly. Only a hundred years ago, the temperature rose above 30 degrees Celsius on average about one day a year. Now it is already an average of five times a year, with a peak of 8 days in 2020.

And the problem will only get worse in the coming decades, not only in the Netherlands, but also elsewhere in Europe. According to the latest models, heat waves (five consecutive days above 25 degrees Celsius, including three above 30) will not only become more frequent in the second half of this century, but also hotter and longer lasting. The cause, it is now generally accepted, is the greenhouse effect.

What to do? You can of course try to prevent the greenhouse effect (or mitigate it, as attempted in the Paris climate accords), but many people are not waiting for that. “They are already choosing the easiest and fastest solution: air conditioning,” says Lenneke Kuijer, researcher at the Future Everyday Group at the Faculty of Industrial Design. Through interviews, she investigated into how Dutch households deal with hot weather.

“As a society, we’re in danger of becoming more and more dependent on mechanical cooling to keep our heads and bodies cool, which is not only inefficient, but also unhealthy. Look at what happened last year, during the August heat wave here in the Netherlands. Essent, one of our main energy providers, saw energy demand increase by 30 percent then.”

“This is something that concerns me greatly. The increasing demand for air conditioners and the increasing energy consumption of these devices are jeopardizing our goal of reducing CO2 emissions. Not to mention the fact that the coolants in many air conditioners act like a super greenhouse gas. The irony is that in our effort to stay cool, we are actually making the earth – and our immediate environment – even hotter.”

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