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Blistering Europeans Offer Cautious Welcome to Air Conditioning

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During Europe’s recent temperature spike, Floriana Peroni’s retro apparel boutique was shut for seven days. A lorry with hired generators obstructed her entrance, providing energy to the central Roman district struck by an outage due to escalating temperatures. The primary offender: air conditioning units. During this spell—when the thermometer read 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit)—electricity consumption reached near-record levels, almost touching Italy’s historic peak, registering over 59 gigawatts on July 19. This approached a record set in July 2015.

Excessive power consumption disrupted the grid, affecting not just the core Campo de Fiori area where Peroni’s store is located, but also other parts of Rome. Electricity demand in that second week of July skyrocketed by 30%, mirroring a prolonged hot spell that had been ongoing for several weeks, as reported by Rome’s power supplier ARETI. Like numerous residents of Rome, Peroni doesn’t own an AC in her residence or her business place. Previously, Rome could rely on a gentle sea wind to decrease nocturnal temperatures, but such comfort is now sporadic. “Mostly, we activate fans,” remarked Peroni. “We believe it suffices. We endure the warmth, as it’s traditionally been endured.” However, attitudes in Europe are gradually shifting.

 

Air conditioning isn’t as embedded in European traditions

While there are exceptions like Peroni, escalating global heat is shifting air conditioning from being seen as a luxury to an essential in various European regions. Historically, Europe’s perspective on energy-intensive cooling units was that they were more of an American extravagance. The tendency of some U.S. buildings to be excessively chilled, mirroring temperatures of a cold storage room, often surprises Europeans. They find it peculiar that the cold air gusts onto city walkways as individuals enter and exit buildings, and that one might need a light jacket indoors even during peak summer. Conversely, European event planners might provide handheld fans if they anticipate events becoming too warm. It’s common for patrons to experience warmth in less-cooled supermarkets, and there’s no assurance that cinemas will have temperature management. Typically, evening diners have shown a preference for al fresco seating to dodge the warmth of establishments that seldom have air conditioning.

To counteract the warmth, countries like Italy and Spain usually take a break for a few hours post-lunch, known as riposo or siesta. Moreover, most people vacation in August, a month when numerous enterprises pause operations entirely, enabling families to take a break by the beach or mountains. Italians especially prefer to leave their sweltering historic cities to international visitors, lessening the immediate need for residential cooling systems. Nevertheless, the adoption of air conditioners in Europe has grown from 10% in 2000 to 19% in the previous year, as reported by the International Energy Agency. This uptake is still significantly less than the U.S., where the figure hovers around 90%. A considerable portion of Europeans hesitate because of the expenses, environmental repercussions, and even potential health risks like catching a cold or neck stiffness due to the cold breeze. Cooling mechanisms are still uncommon in Nordic nations and even in Germany, despite occasional temperatures soaring beyond 30 degrees Celsius (90s in Fahrenheit) for sustained durations.

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However, even milder climates might exceed comfort levels if temperatures ascend between 1.5 degrees C and 2 degrees C, as indicated by recent research from the University of Cambridge. Under this hypothesis, residents of northern regions such as the UK, Norway, Finland, and Switzerland would experience the most significant proportional surge in unbearably warm days. Nicole Miranda, a contributor to the study, remarked that their projections, implying exceeding the global aim of confining future temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the times before the industrial revolution, are rather cautious. “Our estimates don’t factor in the heat island phenomenon,” she mentioned, referring to cities retaining heat during nighttime, turning surfaces into heat emitters. “Scientifically speaking, if everyone defaults to air conditioning as the primary solution, we’ll encounter a distinct challenge due to the significant energy use and carbon emissions associated with it.” Miranda suggests cities should ponder over less energy-consuming strategies, such as providing shade to structures and integrating water bodies for cooling. She further endorsed focusing on cooling individuals using personal items like ice-filled vests or advanced fabrics that effectively manage body heat.

 

Expanding — albeit hesitant — interest

In Italy, purchases of cooling systems increased from 865,000 annually in 2012 to 1.92 million in 2022, predominantly for commercial rather than private applications, with a surge noted in the initial months of this year, as per the industry group Assoclima. The majority are dual-function heat pump setups, capable of warming areas during colder months, which Assoclima mentions can diminish gas usage when costs soar amid the Ukrainian conflict. This multifunctionality appeals to buyers.

France, possessing a marginally bigger population, demonstrates greater reluctance, with sales of 1 million units annually. The prevalence of air conditioners in France was uncommon until a heatwave in 2003 resulted in numerous fatalities, predominantly among senior citizens. Yet, a significant number of individual residences and flats in France lack air conditioning, and a substantial number of eateries and diverse enterprises don’t have it either. Establishments equipped with air coolers frequently promote this to lure patrons during sweltering periods. A distaste for AC remains, both among traditionalist French viewing it as a needless American influence and those on the progressive side regarding it as ecologically detrimental.

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Cécile de Munck and Aude Lemonsu, climatologists at France’s primary weather organization, cautioned this season that if the quantity of AC devices in Paris grows twofold by 2030, the urban temperature could increase by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) due to heat emanated by the cooling mechanisms. In spite of reservations about energy expenditure, air conditioning is swiftly permeating homes in Spain, a nation that typically leaned towards employing fans and shutting thick curtains, a distinctively Spanish practice. Research from Ca’ Foscari University estimates that 50% of Spanish residences will possess AC by 2040, a jump from a mere 5% in 1990. Yet, as cooler air permeates indoors, conflicts arise with neighbors lamenting the racket from outside apparatuses. This poses challenges for Spain’s property overseers. “Some residents find it challenging to open their windows because they’re greeted with a blast of heat,” remarked Pablo Abascal, head of Spain’s consortium of property overseers. “With the surge in cooling systems, many structures will soon lack space to accommodate these machines.”

Air conditioning and cooling have been identified as essential for the elderly during severe heat, alleviating pressure on heart functions in a swelter of 37 degrees Celsius (99 degrees Fahrenheit), based on research at the University of Ottawa in Canada. However, even in places like Cyprus, where temperatures soaring to 40 degrees Celsius are now typical, consistently operating AC isn’t economically feasible for numerous seniors with set earnings. Many in this Mediterranean country limit their AC use to the peak heat hours, often confining themselves to one chamber. “It’s undeniable that such circumstances deeply affect their psychological health,” expressed Demos Antoniou, chief of the Cyprus Third Age Observatory, an elderly advocacy organization. “The prevalent apprehension is that abstaining from activating AC units could risk inducing heat-related illnesses.” At the age of 83, Angeliki Vassiliou contemplates both her utility costs and the welfare of the coming generations before activating the system. “There’s no logic in squandering power. Excess is inequitable,” Vassiliou articulated. “Misuse of any asset is inappropriate, for what could become of our Earth with such excess?”

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