The stakes of air conditioning in China

A recent IEA report highlights the impressive growth in current and future demand in the air-conditioning sector in China. However, it considers that strong energy efficiency policies for air conditioners coupled with improved building design and system management would avoid a significant increase in energy consumption and emissions over the next decade

Driven by increasing income and growing demand for thermal comfort mostly in urban areas, air conditioner (AC) sales in China have grown fivefold since 2000, accounting for nearly 40% of global sales in 2017.

As the recent International Energy Agency report “The Future of Cooling in China“1 points out, energy use for air conditioning in China has increased with an average annual growth rate of 13% since 2000, reaching around 400TWh in 2017. Air conditioning in China accounted for more than 10% of total national electricity consumption growth and for about one-third of global growth in energy used for air conditioning during that period.

However, per capita electricity consumption for air conditioning in China is still substantially less than in the United States and less than half that in Japan and Korea, suggesting there is still considerable room for growth.

Around 40% of households still do not own an air conditioner. As income levels continue to grow, AC ownership could reach as much as 85% by 2030. Growing expectations for thermal comfort and an increasing number of hot days will increase how often those ACs are used. The areas with the largest increase in cooling degree days by 2030 are also typically those with higher population densities, which will further impact cooling demand.

Due to the strong reliance on coal-fired power generation in China, air-conditioning-related emissions from electricity consumption grew fivefold since 2000 to reach more than 250 million tonnes of CO2 in 2017.

Without strong policies, electricity use for space cooling could grow to 750 TWh or more by 2030. This is due to both growing cooling demand and an expected weak improvement in the energy efficiency of ACs sold, which are only 10-20% more efficient by 2030 in the IEA Baseline Scenario than units sold in 2017. Greater shifts towards “full time” and “full space” cooling behaviour in buildings would increase electricity demand by 2030 even further, to as much as 900 TWh or more.

Energy-efficient air conditioning with improved building design and system management can keep stable cooling electricity use, while also providing economic, health and environmental benefits. Improved Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS) in the IEA Efficient Cooling Scenario lead to an average efficiency of ACs in 2030 that is 50% higher than in 2017. This cuts cooling energy demand by more than 200 TWh in 2030 compared with the Baseline Scenario. An additional 100 TWh can be saved by using improved building envelope measures such as low-emissivity windows and cool roofs, as well as smart cooling devices that ensure energy is used when and where cooling services are needed. Electricity capacity needs in the IEA Efficient Cooling Scenario are consequently more than 50 gigawatts lower than in the Baseline Scenario. This translates to a reduction of more than 10% in costs to meet space cooling demand and 1 260 megatonnes in cumulative CO2 emissions savings.

IEA concludes that effective policy intervention is necessary to drive energy-efficient cooling in buildings. China can deliver significant energy and cost savings through implementation of a comprehensive national policy framework including regulation, information programmes and industry incentives.

1 IEA (2019), "The Future of Cooling in China", IEA, Paris,