By Molly Taft

After a summer of deadly heat, the future of air conditioning in a world marked by rising temperatures has come sharply into focus. While some research has indicated we could “essentially cook ourselves” if the world collectively turns on the air conditioning in the face of more extreme heat, a new study shows the reality may be slightly different. And in some ways, the findings are even more worrisome.

In a study published on Wednesday in Nature, a team of researchers from the Climate Impact Lab, a collaboration between climate economists from various institutions, set out to determine just how much household energy use has increased and will increase due to climate change. The findings show the stark inequalities in future energy use for heating and cooling. The world’s richest residents, they found, will benefit from saving on heating during the winter, while the rest of the world will struggle without access to air conditioning during hot summers. Middle income countries, meanwhile, could see spiraling energy burdens as they struggle to cope with extreme heat.

To do the math on how energy consumption will change, researchers first collected 40 years of energy use datasets from 146 countries, as well as data on historical weather trends, and then measured how energy consumption in different areas changes with extreme temperatures. This holistic approach offers a rare glimpse of true heating and cooling energy use around the world.

“In prior work, researchers often extrapolated what would happen in poorer regions by looking at research from richer regions,” Amir Jina, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Chicago and a coauthor of the study, wrote in an email. “So, for example, they’d take information on how temperature affects AC use in the very wealthy U.S., and apply that to much less wealthy India. This might overstate energy-related costs of climate change, because you’d assume that every Indian household would just switch on their AC when it gets hot and would consume a huge amount of energy. But we know that most households in India don’t have AC units, so if you don’t include data on India or other less wealthy places, you get the answer wrong.”

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