In the scorching heat of India’s capital this summer, Ramesh found himself laboring under the burning sun to provide for his family. Despite feeling faint, he had no choice but to continue working. Living in a congested suburb in western Delhi with his extended family, Ramesh experienced firsthand the unbearable heat that has become synonymous with the city in recent years.
“The heat is becoming unbearable,” he lamented. “But we do not have a choice, we have to work.”
To cope with the rising temperatures, Ramesh borrowed $35, nearly half of his monthly salary, to purchase a second-hand air conditioner for his home. Despite its imperfections, including noise and occasional dust release, the AC was a necessity for his family’s well-being.
This predicament reflects the paradox faced by India, where increasing wealth and temperatures drive the demand for air conditioners. By 2050, India is expected to be among the first places where temperatures exceed survivability limits, and the demand for air conditioners is projected to rise nine-fold, outpacing all other appliances, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
Ramesh’s struggle highlights a broader question raised by climate scientists: should developing nations bear the cost of reducing emissions when they are among the least responsible for the surge in greenhouse gases? At the recent COP28 climate talks in Dubai, India, a rapidly growing economy, was not among the countries that pledged to cut emissions from cooling systems.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasized the need for developing countries to have a fair share in the global carbon budget, but India finds itself at the forefront of the climate crisis. The challenge is how to balance development goals while ensuring environmental protection.
India’s population, especially in the more tropical southern regions, heavily relies on air conditioning for physical and mental well-being. Over the past five decades, the country has experienced over 700 heat wave events, claiming more than 17,000 lives. In June alone, temperatures soared to 47 degrees Celsius, resulting in at least 44 deaths and numerous heat-related illnesses.
According to a World Bank report, by 2030, India may account for 34 million of the projected 80 million global job losses from heat stress. With over 50% of the workforce engaged in agriculture, the risks are significant. As incomes rise and urban populations grow, the ownership of air conditioners has surged.
Electricity consumption in India from cooling, including AC and refrigerators, increased by 21% between 2019 and 2022, according to the IEA. By 2050, India’s total electricity demand from residential air conditioners is expected to surpass the total electricity consumption in all of Africa today. However, this demand exacerbates the global climate crisis, as many air conditioners use harmful greenhouse gases like hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and large amounts of electricity generated from fossil fuels.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that, if unchecked, air conditioning-related greenhouse gas emissions could contribute to a 0.5 degrees Celsius rise in global temperatures by the end of the century.
India faces a dilemma, caught between the need for economic growth and the imperative to limit cooling-related emissions. At the COP summit, 63 countries pledged to cut their emissions from cooling systems by 68% by 2050. However, India did not join this group. Despite this, experts acknowledge India’s important leadership in sustainable cooling domestically, though international partners hope for future collaboration.
Under the 2016 Kigali Amendment, India is phasing out HFCs and replacing them with more climate-friendly options. Radhika Khosla, an associate professor at Oxford University, emphasizes the importance of providing assistance to countries lacking access to adequate cooling to meet the costs of energy improvement.
“Cooling is now on the global agenda,” she said. “But the hard work must begin to ensure everyone can stay cool without further heating the planet.”
Passive cooling strategies, such as planting trees, creating water bodies, promoting courtyard spaces, and enhancing ventilation, are suggested by Khosla as sustainable measures. Installing ceiling fans can reduce household energy consumption for cooling by over 20%.
India has committed to reducing its power demand for cooling purposes by 20-25% by 2038 under its Cooling Action Plan, seen as one of the first comprehensive national plans globally. Renewable energy is growing rapidly in India, putting the country on track to meet its emission reduction targets.
Despite being a significant contributor to the climate crisis, India remains proactive in finding climate solutions, as stated by Leena Nandan, India’s secretary for the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
“We have gone on to scale up our climate ambitions,” she asserted.
However, the visible impact of India’s AC boom is evident in urban areas, with construction sites dotting the capital and the rise of high-rise towers. While some, like businessman Penta Anil Kumar, consciously opt for energy-efficient models, others like laborer Ghasiram, who struggles to afford even a second-hand AC, remain unaware of the emissions contributing to rising temperatures.
“The heat has gotten worse over the years,” Ghasiram said. “When I need to step out to work in the heat, I feel nervous. I prefer to not go out.”