Paris is burning. So why won’t Europeans adopt AC?

This story was originally published by Board and appears here as part of the climatic table collaboration.

Three in the afternoon, 91 F, and the air conditioning is broken at Les Argentiers, the brasserie Ivan Rizzi runs on a working street in Paris’s 12th arrondissement. It needs a new engine, says the repairman. Rizzi makes a note of that, but decides, for now, not to fix it. Never mind that there’s condensation on your customers’ wine glasses or that it’s going to be this hot or worse every day this week.

It’s an election that holds the strange secret of Europe’s reluctance to embrace air conditioning, a mix of culture, climate, architecture, regulation and foreign policy that leaves some of the richest people on the planet sweating their clothes off for a few weeks every summer.

Rizzi insists that he is in favor of air conditioning. “We are heating up the planet, we have to put it everywhere,” he said. Just not here at his restaurant. His antiquated, water-starved system simply costs too much to bother repairing, he said. Are you fighting with your neighbors to install a new one that pumps hot air to the street? Possibility of fat.

Single one in 10 homes in Europe have air conditioning, far below the rates in China, Japan or the United States, where 90 percent of homes have a refrigeration system. Why have some of the world’s richest countries taken so long to adopt climate control in hot climates? It’s a question on the mind once again as another heat wave bakes Western Europe.

Rather than seize the moment to embrace CA, European leaders have mostly either avoided the technology or moved to limit its use. In Spain, for example, the government began requiring air conditioning temperatures in public places to be no lower than 80 F, following similar measures in Italy and Greece.

If it seems like a counterintuitive response to a heat wave, it’s because Europe is simultaneously in the midst of a huge energy crisis while Russia is strangling the continent’s natural gas supplies. With EU member states seeking to cut winter gas use by 15 percent this winter to avoid blackouts or industrial closures, and with an eye toward Paris Agreement emissions targets for 2030, putting millions of new ACs on the grid just isn’t an option, is it? now. Air conditioning accounts for just one percent of building energy use in Europe, compared to 10 percent in the United States.

To top it off, summer is also one of the driest on record. The drought has curtailed output at France’s nuclear plants and threatens shipping on the River Rhine, which carries fuel and other materials to Germany’s industrial heartland. It’s a frightening example of how two different but related climate change events can escalate, with each making it harder for the other to respond.

But what accounts for long-term AC resistance? In an OpinionWay 2021 survey of 1,045 French adults (performed, it must be said, for a company that makes heat pumps), almost two out of three respondents said they did not plan to buy an air conditioner. The top two reasons cited were energy costs and environmental impacts.

When I asked a French friend why her compatriots resist air conditioning, she explained: “It pollutes, it is often too cold, the air is fake. It makes you sick and gives you a headache. It keeps you in and creates non-stop discussions with the team at work. It makes me feel like a prune.

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Most of it can be called cultural argument against AC, and he’s alive and well. Every European who has visited the United States has a story of freezing in an air-conditioned store or office.

Not everyone buys it. “When the French can’t afford something, they will find 10,000 excuses,” replies Gilles Bourquin, who runs the air-conditioning company his father founded in 1967, Clim Denfert. “They have it in the car, they have it in the office,” he says, and yet “air conditioning is considered a luxury product.” It refers to both practice (there is a 20 percent tax on air conditioning in France, compared to five percent for a new heating system) and cultural perception, where Bourquin feels that air conditioning has been unfairly vilified by left-wing environmentalists.

There are several reasons why the adoption of air conditioning, at least in the northern part of the continent, has remained the province of corporate offices, movie theaters and luxury stores.

The first is that this summer’s heat is historically quite rare. Paris, for example, has a summer temperature pattern that is closer to Seattle than any other American city. Those cool nights, average summer lows of 60 F, have made home air conditioning seem unnecessary. That is changing as summer temperatures rise. The US Army used to say that AC was “not considered appropriate” for bases in Europe, except Italy, partly an attempt to live like the locals. But after a scorching summer in 2019, the military decided to delegate that decision to garrison commanders. Soldiers stationed in family homes in Germany are now allowed to buy your own units.

Second: electricity is expensive. Long before the war in Ukraine caused an energy crisis on the continent, electricity tariffs in the EU were more than twice the US average, while income is lower. In 2016, for example, retail electricity prices in Germany were about three times higher than in Texas. That’s partly because the continent is making huge investments in clean energy. Ironically, Bourquin suggests, the looming gas crisis could help usher in air conditioning, by encouraging Europeans to replace gas heaters with energy-efficient heat pumps, which can also run air conditioning in the summer.

Third is the urban heat island effect, which is more severe in the denser, grayer cities of Europe than in the more suburban metropolises of the United States. Even if they rely on clean power, ACs heat the outside air as much as they cool the inside. That means the comfort of those with air conditioning feeds the discomfort of those without. Researchers from the French National Center for Meteorological Research have concluded that if Paris doubles its use of air conditioning by 2030, it could raise the outside temperature in the city by 3 F to 4 F. As a result, policymakers have been very reluctant to encourage the adoption of air conditioning, except in vulnerable places like nursing homes.

Fourth is the gap between office and home. European workplaces, including some factories, malls, shops and offices, are more likely to be temperature controlled than homes. Modern office buildings where the windows do not open, of course, have air conditioning. Remote work remains rare in Europe, and many workers have he kept dragging himself to the office on some of the hottest days in the continent’s history. That means fewer people sitting in houses without air conditioning during the hottest hours of the day.

The fifth is the holidays. Many Europeans take important summer vacations. In France, even air conditioning installers are on vacation. Nearly three out of four Europeans said they I planned to travel this summer. Those who stay at home participate in the continent’s rich tradition of public space, as breweries, cafe terraces and public parks. EITHER take a nap — dozing off during the hottest part of the day.

Sixth is architecture. Europe’s building stock is old. In most EU countries, more than half of the residential building stock is built before 1970. As a result, very few air-conditioned houses were built. Renters may not want to invest in a unit they can’t take with them; Homeowners have to pay for a complex, time-consuming installation that may require drilling through concrete, permission from a cooperative board, and even local government approval.

But that legacy is a mixed blessing; Many European homes have climate-friendly adaptations built in. Some of them are very simple. It is rare to see a building in Madrid or Athens that does not have exterior shutters to keep the summer sun out of the windows. The Germans, naturally, have a word for these sun-proof roller doors: roll.

Balconies are almost as common, and unlike air conditioning, they’re not considered a luxury: Pritzker-winning architects Lacaton and Vassal added them to older social housing blocks in Bordeaux. Most of the apartments also have cross ventilation, which is made possible by efficient single stair floor plans.

These days, new homes in warmer parts of the continent come with AC-enabled heat pumps as a matter of course. Still, you can see the focus on architecture before technology on display in the UK. new construction regulations, which were adopted this summer. In the new code, a cross-ventilated apartment is a legally recognized category. There are limits on window surfaces and instructions for overhangs to shade them when the sun is high in the sky. Most interestingly, the code says, builders must show that “all practical passive means of limiting unwanted solar gains, i.e., heat from the afternoon sun, have been used first before adopting mechanical cooling.” ”. Air conditioning, explicitly, is a tool of last resort.

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