It seems too easy: keep the air conditioning a few degrees warmer and the heat a few degrees cooler and you could fight climate change. But think about it––when’s the last time you were in an indoor space that wasn’t temperature-controlled by a heating and cooling system? Considering that humans spend 90% of their time indoors, and that heating and cooling consumes an estimated 12% of global energy, it’s probably a rarer occasion than you think.
This reliance on heating and cooling systems (a.k.a HVAC), the energy required to sustain it and the resulting carbon emissions are only anticipated to grow as climate change worsens. The International Energy Administration forecasts that the number of air conditioning units on the earth will triple by 2050, which could cause emissions from cooling to nearly double from 1.135 million tons in 2016 to 2.070 million tons in 2050.
So how can we maximize efficiency when it comes to utilizing heating and cooling energy? And if changing the thermostat can result in measurable energy savings, how can we do it while still staying comfortable?
First, a brief primer on energy
To get a better understanding of where the energy used to heat and cool our indoor spaces comes from, I reached out to renewable energy consultant Derek Stenclik. Here’s how he broke it down:
In the US, there are three separate grids: the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection, and the state of Texas has its own system. Which resources are used to power these different grids depends on what’s readily available in each region. In the Pacific Northwest, hydro power is a main source of energy in the grid. In the Mountain West and southeast, natural gas and coal are more common because those resources are abundant in the ground. In the Northeast, it’s primarily coal and propane.
Most power plants rely on non-renewable resources to make electricity, contributing to global greenhouse gasses.
According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), fossil fuels provide 60% of power-plant generated energy used in the US. Nuclear provides nearly 20%, and renewables like solar, hydro and wind make up the remaining 20%. Wind and solar are slowly gaining popularity thanks in part to government subsidies and large scale wind projects, but remain the minority among renewables.
Heat comes from a wide variety of sources including wood, propane, natural gas, oil and electricity. Air conditioners, on the other hand, just get plugged into the electric grid, meaning that whatever the powerplants in your local region burn to generate energy is what powers your AC.
Energy demand on the grid spikes in extreme weather like the heat waves that occurred in New York City and the Pacific Northwest in 2021 when triple digit temperatures prompted people to blast their air conditioners. This caused surges on the grid, resulting in the threat of blackouts. In these instances, power plants will often call upon otherwise dormant, less efficient backup generators, which then add even more emissions to the mix. Now we’re beginning to see where those massive carbon emissions come from.
Renewable energy sources like solar are promising, but remain the minority when it comes to widespread energy production.
Can we maintain comfort and use less energy? The Cool Biz case study
During the summer of 2005, Japan’s Ministry of Environment initiated an unusual campaign. In an effort to encourage less electricity use, the air conditioning in government office buildings was turned to 82.4°F from June to September and workers were encouraged to wear cooler, less formal attire. The initial campaign, dubbed Cool Biz , was a success, with the Ministry estimating that 460,000 tons of carbon emissions had been cut in the first year. Over the coming years it extended into the private sector and has gained popularity since.
In 2011, the Fukushima nuclear meltdown occurred, which prompted the Ministry to extend the campaign from May to October in an effort to trim energy demand even more. By 2012, it had enabled an estimated 2.2 million tons of carbon reductions, and in 2020 spawned another initiative, Warm Biz, in which office heating is reduced and workers are encouraged to wear warmer clothes.
The longevity and success of the Cool Biz campaign offers a couple of useful takeaways. One: changing the thermostat can lead to significant energy savings and two: if people have the right clothes, keeping room temperatures warmer in summer and cooler in winter isn’t such a stretch after all.
Temperature regulating fabrics like LifeLabs CoolLife can help you stay comfortable, even in warmer temps.
Using less energy: a small effort that makes a big impact
A few things are certain:
-Heating and cooling consume a substantial amount of energy and produce significant greenhouse emissions.
-As the earth warms, energy demands on the grid are anticipated to increase with more extreme weather events.
-Decreasing your personal energy use at home and work can have significant energy savings, especially when done en mass.
-There are alternative ways to stay warmer or cooler that don’t involve changing the temperature of the air around you.
With all that in mind, and with summer months and air conditioning season ahead, lowering your energy usage really can be as simple as changing your thermostat. Consider this: a thermostat change of +2 degrees C in the summer and -2 degrees C in the winter offers the potential to reduce your total carbon emissions by 320lbs of CO2 per person annually (the equivalent of eating beef once a week), and a 12% decrease in energy consumption per year*. That’s substantial, and literally right at your fingertips.
Also, what about changing the temperature of your body, instead of the temperature of the air? That is, after all, what humans did before the advent of HVAC systems. The material of clothing you wear can have a big impact on how your body thermoregulates its temperature. Breathable, lightweight fabrics like LifeLabs CoolLife can keep your body comfortable even in warmer temps. Efficient, minimal-material reflective technologies like WarmLife can keep you warmer, even in a chilly room.
“Many hands make light work,” said Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley in reference to how people can combat and adapt to climate change at last year’s COP26 conference in Glasglow, Scotland. When it comes to energy reduction, a 2°C shift may not feel significant, but if enough people do it, it could change the world.
*Based on calculations using data from https://www.c2es.org U.S. Energy Information Administration https://www.eia.gov , U.S. Department of Energy https://www.energy.gov/ , U.S. Census Bureau https://www.census.gov/