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Europeans face a heat wave conundrum 

Air conditioners are not the best for the planet long term, but Europeans may need to care a bit more about themselves in the short term and start installing more of them.
Image: Britain weather climate
People cover their heads to shelter from the sun as they walk past the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park, west London, on July 19, 2022.Niklas Halle'n / AFP - Getty Images

If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. This past week, much of Europe and the United States became a part of the kitchen as heat waves made things hotter for millions worldwide. But while most Americans affected by extreme heat found relief, many Europeans found themselves stuck in the metaphorical kitchen without air conditioning. Air conditioners are not the best thing for the well-being of the planet, and it’s important to care about their effect on climate change long term, but Europeans may need to care a bit more about themselves in the short term.

If it’s unpleasantly hot in the United States, people have many options besides going to the beach. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 88% of American homes have air conditioning, so staying home is often an option, and if you don’t have air conditioning in your home or want to go out, you can head to restaurants, shops, malls, libraries, museums and many other buildings to beat the heat.

Keeping things cool isn’t just a matter of comfort, but also a matter of productivity and public health.

But it’s a very different story in Europe. The Washington Post recently reported that only 20% of European homes have air conditioning, and it’s rare to find it in schools or offices. I learned this earlier this year while working as an English teacher in Poland. My apartment didn’t have air conditioning. Neither did my school. And some of the same places you’d go to in the U.S. to cool off didn’t have it either. 

On a day trip earlier this month, I was excited at the prospect of an afternoon in pleasantly cool museums looking at art, only to learn that neither of the museums I visited had air conditioning. They just had dehumidifiers and a couple of fans to protect their 19th century paintings and medieval wood carvings. A temperature gauge in a display case said it was 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit), only slightly cooler than outside. Stagnant 82-degree air does not make for good conditions to appreciate art.

There are a variety of reasons for Europe’s general lack of air conditioning. Electricity costs more in Europe, with prices in Germany and Denmark more than twice as high as in the U.S. Average incomes are similar between the U.S. and parts of Europe, but in other parts, salaries are much lower than those in the U.S., making air conditioning less affordable. Climate consciousness makes many reluctant to embrace technology that contributes to climate change. Other cultural differences may also play a role, with some attributing all manner of maladies to moving air.

But perhaps the most significant reason is a difference in the climate. Europe is located farther north than much of the continental U.S., making the weather there generally cooler than it is here. For example, heat is rare enough in Germany that temperatures of 79 F prompt school and business closings called “hitzefrei,” and nighttime temperatures above 68 F are called “tropennacht,” or “tropical night.”

When temperatures are cooler on average, air conditioning is less necessary. It doesn’t make much sense for most buildings to have air conditioning if it wouldn’t be used much. The average July high in London is 75 F, which is 10 degrees cooler than the average July high in New York.

But with temperatures rising globally from climate change, that is beginning to change. With the current heat wave, London is close to 30 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than average, and it and most of Europe are unprepared for this intensity of heat. Temperatures that high are only expected in the United Kingdom once every few centuries, but with unabated carbon emissions, the country could experience those temperatures every few years. And this problem is made even worse by a lack of air conditioning.

In the U.S., an average of 702 people die from high temperatures annually, and between 1900 and 2016, the deadliest heat wave in the U.S. claimed the lives of 1,260 people in 1980. The current heat wave has killed more than 2,000 people in Spain and Portugal alone and stopped some routine hospital operations in the U.K. In 2003, 70,000 Europeans died from heat-related causes. An American Economic Association study found that hotter schools correlate with lower test scores. And extreme heat often has a larger impact on the most vulnerable in our society.  

Keeping things cool isn’t just a matter of comfort, but also a matter of productivity and public health.

The world needs its infrastructure to cope with higher temperatures, and air conditioning is part of that infrastructure. It’s not the only way to deal with the heat, and it’s not always the best way, but it’s more practical to use air conditioning to adapt existing buildings to a changing climate than to demolish and rebuild entire neighborhoods with more eco-friendly designs.

While Europe can adapt to a warming climate by getting better at keeping it cool, we in the U.S. could benefit by taking a page from the European playbook, using air conditioning a bit less and working harder to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Increases in efficiency and regulatory standards can lower the impact of air conditioning on the environment while still lowering the temperature. The U.S. Department of Energy notes that a new central air conditioner can yield savings of 20% to 40% in energy costs compared to one just 10 years old, and new air conditioning efficiency standards will come into effect in 2023

And while a blast of cold air can be refreshing, European visitors (and some Americans) often remark that we keep our buildings a bit cooler than they need to be. Setting the thermostat a few degrees higher in the summer is better for the environment and your wallet.