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Europe never understood America’s love of air conditioning — until now

People cool off at the Trocadero Fountains next to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, on July 23, 2019 as a new heatwave hits Europe. (Photo by BERTRAND GUAY / AFP)BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images (Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images)
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BERLIN — A second-sizzling heat wave that’s sweeping Europe this summer is fueling a shift in attitude across the continent to the once foreign concept of air conditioning.

This week’s latest and most punishing heat wave is expected to shatter all-time high records with temperatures predicted to hit about 108 Fahrenheit (42C) in Paris and 102.2 (39C) in London on Thursday, while the mercury in Belgium reached a record of 103.8F on Wednesday.

But with the planet getting hotter due to human-caused climate change, many Europeans are reconsidering their opposition to air conditioning that has made them among the lowest users of the cooling machines in the world.

A historic heat wave broke records in European cities on July 24. Paris experienced a high of 109 degrees Fahrenheit. (Video: The Washington Post)

Until now, fewer than five percent of all European households have air-conditioning, compared with 90 percent in the United States. But Europe’s air-conditioner stock is estimated to roughly double within the next two decades, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), as record heat becomes more frequent.

For many Brits sweltering in record heat, the lack of air-conditioning has become a problem not only at home but on public transport, where a service running with fully air-conditioned trains is a distant dream. Transport for London urged people to travel with water and stay hydrated.

In recent weeks in Germany, residents have been sharing maps on social media of air-conditioned buildings and cafes in their area, fans and portable cooling systems are sold out. Employers are worried that the lack of cooling is killing productivity, and at least one Berlin air-conditioning installer suspended its phone service because of a flood of calls in June, according to a recorded voice message.

Air conditioning’s unpopularity in Europe is not entirely based on climate change concerns. For some, it is simply not worth the effort. On most days, summers in some parts of Europe can still feel more like mild winters to Texas or Arizona residents.

On a continent that has long shrugged off air conditioning as unnecessary and where doctors still debate its potentially harmful side effects, the recent quest to find cooler air may foreshadow a drastic change in Europeans’ relationship with the air conditioner. Dirk Trembich, the head of the Berliner Klima air-conditioning company, said interest began to surge in April 2018 — ahead of a record-hot summer. Demand still hasn’t faded.

For residents, the growing acceptance of air conditioning in their homes is an acknowledgment of a worrisome fact: Climate change is here to stay.

After predictions of the impending heat wave, sales of fans and air conditioners have surged across Europe in recent months, including in France and Austria. In Germany, the U.S. military said last month it was examining whether new temperature records would require the installation of new air conditioners, Stars and Stripes reported.

Those changes may come close to a cooling revolution in Europe. But by a global standard, the movement toward cooling is marginal.

Europe’s estimated increase in overall demand in the coming years is expected to be dwarfed by demand in other parts of the world, especially India, Indonesia and China. Fans and air conditioners already account for 10 percent of electricity consumption, but the IEA predicts that the associated energy demand could triple over the next three decades, unless units become significantly more energy efficient.

European air conditioners are already among the world’s most efficient. Still, their environmental footprint could make Europe’s debate over the need for better cooling even more heated than it has been in the past. By trying to escape the impact of climate change, its critics argue, air-conditioner consumers may end up making global warming worse.

Air conditioners’ energy consumption was among the reasons cited when German officials in the city of Düsseldorf recently rejected proposals to install cooling systems. Like most buildings in Germany, one of the world’s richest nations, schools are not usually air-conditioned, which means that students are sent home early on especially hot days.

But the hesitancy among some Germans to embrace air conditioning is justified, said Veit Bürger, deputy energy and climate action head of Germany’s Institute for Applied Ecology. Periods of heat often coincided with stiller-than-usual air, resulting in less wind energy being produced and an increased demand for polluting coal energy instead, he said. This combination could make air conditioning during the summer especially challenging, given European targets to cut emissions.

Instead, he urged a more concerted effort to design “buildings in a way that minimizes the need” for air conditioning, through better insulation.

German health insurance providers and doctors frequently caution that air conditioning can make humans more vulnerable to catching colds and may expose people suffering from allergies to mold. One of Germany’s largest health insurance providers, Barmer, released a warning last year and compared air conditioners’ “cold shock” to “weather extremes,” such as thunderstorms, which may worsen “sleep disorders, headache or circulatory problems.”

Instead, public health officials said, Germans should consider opening their windows in the morning, dress accordingly and drink sufficiently.

But Trembich, the air-conditioning installer, said that well-maintained and appropriately programmed systems were designed to avoid such side effects. Unlike in the United States, for instance, German systems usually lower the temperature by a few degrees, to avoid exposing consumers to drastic temperature changes and to save energy.

Record-hot summers — including a heat wave that killed 15,000 people in France in 2003 — have prompted reconsideration.

Schichtl, the cooling-system salesman, said consumers were increasingly concluding “that relying on ACs is actually healthier” than battling the heat without one.

This piece was first published June 28. It was updated July 25.

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