China Is Winning a Cold War With an A/C Boom

A global snapshot of cooling.


Summer is barely a month old, and temperature records have already been matched or broken in Europe, the United States, and India, where the state of Rajasthan saw the thermometer climb to a brutal 123 degrees Fahrenheit in June.

Compounding this misery is the general lack of air conditioning in Western Europe and many parts of Asia. A study on cooling by the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows that households in the European Union have only a quarter of the number of air conditioning units as the United States, despite the EU having a larger population.

Triple-digit temperatures are relatively uncommon for most countries in the EU. But they are regular occurrences in large parts of the developing world—and those are some of the places most lacking in air conditioning. Less than 20 percent of households in Brazil, India, and Indonesia are equipped with air conditioners.

The lack of space cooling likely contributed to the 184 people killed during India’s June heat wave. More than 6,100 heat-related deaths occurred in India between 2010 and 2018.

As income levels rise in the developing world, air conditioning becomes more accessible. That phenomenon is seen most vividly in China, where the number of air conditioning units rose from 79 million in 1990 to 569 million in 2016. In this regard, India remains far behind, despite having a similarly sized population and a greater need for cooling.

With climate change fueling more frequent and intense heat waves, and the continued growth of the middle class in Asia and Africa, global air conditioning usage could more than double between now and 2040, according to the IEA. The challenge will be to incorporate more energy-efficient air conditioning units to offset the potential rise in emissions.

C.K. Hickey is the interactives and features designer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @seekayhickey