Ashwin Rode, Tamma Carleton, Michael Delgado, Michael Greenstone, Trevor Houser, Solomon Hsiang, Andrew Hultgren, Amir Jina, Robert E. Kopp, Kelly E. McCusker, Ishan Nath, James Rising & Jiacan Yuan

Energy for cooling and heating plays a crucial role in our ability to cope with extreme temperatures. How do populations around the world alter their energy use in response to heat waves and cold spells? How does this response differ across fuel types, like natural gas, oil, and coal? How is it shaped by factors like a household’s access technology, such as heaters, fans, or air conditioning units? Answering these questions is essential for understanding how a changing climate will affect global energy systems—a cornerstone of the modern economy. Communities are already experiencing a changing climate as record-breaking temperatures become a familiar trend globally. Yet, the impacts of climate change on energy use will vary locally, as individuals, communities, and businesses adapt to local conditions using available resources. This study provides a globally comprehensive, detailed understanding of these impacts and behavioral adaptations, offering critical insights for policymakers, energy systems planners, business leaders, and a range of stakeholders who are preparing to mitigate and adapt to a more unstable climate.

Key Takeaways

  • Using data from 146 countries over 40 years, this study quantifies the effect of temperature on electricity and direct fuel consumption across residential, commercial, and industrial end-uses. Notably, the study measures how this effect differs across income levels and climate zones.
  • The authors use these globally representative, data-driven results to project the future impact of climate change on consumption of electricity and other fuels consumption in 24,378 globally comprehensive geographic regions. Their novel approach reflects the effects of behavioral adaptations like air-conditioning adoption that populations in each region undertake as they become more affluent and exposed to warmer climates.
  • In the world’s present-day richest locations, electricity consumption increases substantially on days with mean temperatures of 35°Celsius/95°Fahrenheit, compared to a day at 20°C/68°F, reflecting access to protective cooling technologies. However, these costly technologies are largely out of reach for today’s lower-income populations. For the poorest 60% of the present-day global income distribution (populations with per capita income less than $11,300), these high temperatures result in virtually no increase in electricity consumption.
  • Electricity consumption in wealthy locations also increases substantially on extremely cold days, with mean temperatures of 0°C/32°F. In addition, direct consumption of other fuels increases on these cold days for all but the poorest 20% of the present-day global income distribution (per capita income < $2,800), reflecting the widespread use of fuels like natural gas, oil, and coal for heating around the world.
  • While income is the primary driver of how much energy a population consumes in response to extreme temperatures, prior experience with hot and cold temperatures also plays a role. For instance, a hot day with an average temperature of 30°C/86°F results in a 20% larger increase in electricity consumption in Houston, Texas, than in Seattle, Washington. While both are relatively wealthy U.S. cities, the differential response to a hot day reflects greater air-conditioning adoption in warmer climates (Houston) than in cooler climates (Seattle).
  • The authors project that rising temperatures over the 21st century will lead to important shifts in energy consumption across locations and fuel types, but on net, these shifts will result in modest net savings in global total energy expenditures. Many parts of the world are expected to remain too poor for most of the 21st century to substantially increase energy consumption in response to warming. By the end of the century, emerging economies in the tropics, such as India, Indonesia, and Vietnam, are projected to increase electricity consumption dramatically in response to warmer temperatures, requiring critical infrastructure planning. However, heating reductions in colder countries due to fewer cold days offset this increase globally.
  • The new analysis calculates that warming caused by an additional ton of CO2 released today is projected to reduce total future global energy expenditures, with most estimates valued between -$3 and -$1, depending on discount rates. This finding using the Climate Impact Lab’s Data-driven Spatial Climate Impact Model (DSCIM) contradicts prior studies, which suggested that warming will dramatically increase total global energy expenditures due to greater demand for cooling. However, these studies were calibrated with data exclusively from wealthy countries. As a result, they have failed to account for the slow uptake of cooling technologies like air-conditioning in poorer parts of the world. While focusing on data from only wealthy locations can lead to overestimates of certain climate change damages, such as energy expenditures, a similarly limited data focus has been shown to severely underestimate damages in other areas, for example, human mortality.
Areas of Focus: Climate Impact Lab
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