There's a lesson in energy savings from Europe's aversion to ACs

According to industry studies, just one in 10 homes on the continent has air conditioning

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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

Published: Sun 21 Aug 2022, 10:03 PM

In homes and apartments across Europe, residents – some of them grannies – are sweltering without any aid to cool them down during record heatwaves. Not only do most Europeans eschew air conditioning, a good number don't even use an electric fan.

According to industry studies, just one in 10 homes in Europe has air conditioning, a ratio even lower in some countries. It is a modern comfort, or an American-invented monstrosity, most have long avoided and many are outright hostile to for a range of reasons. Some say the air feels fake, while others have the notion that processed air can make them sick and still others say the change in going from heat to cold is also unhealthy.

Whatever the reasons, the wealthiest nations on the planet are showing we can live without air conditioning. Or can we really? Some European countries are reporting “excess deaths” this summer even above those attributed to the pandemic that experts think could be caused by Europe’s torrid temperatures.

Unless someone has spent significant time in Europe during hot weather it’s almost like a family secret – Europeans seem to loathe air-conditioning. The aversion began long before awareness of global warming, the results of a confluence of culture, cost and a generally cool climate along with historic, drafty buildings and perhaps even chauvinism.

The image Europeans might have of themselves is grocery shopping amid small, time-honoured shops, not in some giant factory-like supermarket similar to the Americans, who apparently think the site should be chilled to a sub-arctic temperature.

Andy Grubb, an American living in Berlin, told National Public Radio (NPR) in the US that the heat in his flat this summer “has been terrible because the sun shines through the window and the wall gets hot”.

As his residence heats up, he thinks more about air conditioning, but the only places in Berlin that have it are grocery stores, movie theaters and a few of the most modern office buildings. Air-conditioning is even disparaged in a country with the Green political party in power, so getting it installed in one’s own apartment might be seen as déclassée – rather crass -- even after all the bureaucratic hurdles have been cleared and the installation permit is in hand.

Native Berliner Carson Hoth told NPR that his experiences in the US have pretty much turned off the air-con for him permanently.

“You freeze to death in America,” says Hoth. “In Florida, you go out like this here - short sleeves. And you go into a restaurant. First, they serve you ice water. And then the air conditioner brings you down to 17 degrees.”

He claims every time he has visited America in the summer, he has caught a cold from all the air conditioning. Of course, it became clear from studies during the Covid-19 pandemic that sealed rooms with equipment using older technologies to recycle air can spread a virus, the culprit behind the common cold.

Efforts to pre-empt the spread of a virus, and a determination to still meet climate targets despite high energy costs, is showing that elegant Europe can tough it out when necessary.

Though air-conditioned buildings use just 1 per cent of Europe’s energy, compared to 10 per cent in the US, many European governments are requiring the temperature dial be set no lower than 27°C.

Even during a record-setting summer of high temperatures, the European anti-air-con mindset, reinforced by pragmatic considerations at the moment – soaring energy prices and possible scarcity due to the fallout from Russia’s incursion into Ukraine – remains well entrenched.

City planners are also concerned about the urban “heat island effect”, which is more severe in Europe’s denser stone and concrete cities than it is in America’s more airy metropolises. As air conditioning cools the air inside, it equally heats the outside air. Researchers at the French National Center for Weather Research have concluded that if Paris doubled its air conditioning use by 2030, it would raise outdoor temperatures in the city by 1 or 2°C.

The Europeans, it must be said, have had ways of dealing with the heat for a long time. One reaction to the summer blaze is to simply leave and decamp to the seaside, hence Europe’s abandoned cities at the moment.

At home, thick walls and stone construction of many houses and apartment complexes provide resistance to rapid heating. With heavy internal drapes and external shutters, the amount of direct sun on the space inside can be managed to reduce heat.

In many regions of the world, air conditioning is seen as a godsend that enables productive life in a consistently hot climate. Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore, famously said air-con is “one of the signal inventions of history”.

But up to now, Europe has had a temperate climate throughout recorded history, following ice ages in the past and prehistoric periods that were warmer than today. Residents can still ride out a few torrid weeks here and there, much as the Romans did 2,000 years ago. The villas and residences of Pompeii next to Naples, so well preserved by volcanic ash in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, were part of what we would today call a beach resort.

So don’t look for soaring sales of air-con units anytime soon in Europe, no matter the temperature. It's just not in the DNA.

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