China implemented one of the world’s most stringent energy efficiency requirements for room air conditioners today. The move by the globe’s largest buyer and manufacturer of these appliances will save huge amounts of carbon-intensive electricity, putting a formidable dent in the country’s climate and air pollution.
New air conditioners and heat pumps (both referred to as room air conditioners, or RACs, for short) sold in China will need to be, on average, 15 percent more energy efficient as of today, July 1st. RACs labeled with an efficiency rating of level one or two, indicating greater energy efficiency, will need to step up performance by an additional 10 to 15 percent.
China’s consumers buy about 45 percent of the world’s RACs, and its businesses produce 70 percent of the world’s supply. The new regulations are expected to apply primarily to models sold into the domestic Chinese market. As Chinese factories update their facilities and supply chains to meet the new Chinese efficiency requirements, we are hopeful that these improvements will spill over into the models being produced for export.
The new standards will put a huge dent in the environmental footprint of China’s appliance sector. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimates that China’s carbon dioxide emissions will fall by about 100 million metric tons annually in 2030 and annual electricity demand will fall by some 200 terawatt hours. That’s like taking some 2-3 dozen large (500 MW) coal-fired powerplants off the grid. Much of the reduced demand will come from summer and winter peak grid loads, so the electricity system will see big benefits. Chinese consumers will also save hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars on their utility bills through midcentury. Emissions of other pollutants that affect human health will also be avoided.
The new regulations are also expected to accelerate the transition to more efficient, “variable-speed” air conditioning technologies. Variable-speed RACs adjust their cooling and heating power to provide only what the room needs, a more efficient process than turning on and off repeatedly, the familiar way that older, “fixed-speed” air conditioners work (like the one you might’ve had in your window).
The Chinese standards encourage variable-speed RACs by requiring all models, including both variable- and fixed-speed, to rate their energy efficiency on a single rating scale, called a ‘metric,’ that factors in year-round energy performance. The single metric helps consumers estimate the electricity they’ll save in real-world conditions using variable-speed RACs—savings that can be significant.
An earlier draft of the standard called for fixed-speed ACs to be become an additional 18 percent more energy efficient in 2022. That step would probably make fixed-speed ACs, currently the market’s low-cost option, more expensive, and thus less competitive with their more-efficient counterparts. The final regulation doesn’t include this additional requirement, but it remains part of China’s Cooling Action Plan and industry experts expect the market to shift in favor of more energy efficient variable speed units nonetheless.
World-wide savings potential is also large
But what about the RACs that China exports to other countries, many of which have fast-growing cooling needs?
United for Efficiency (U4E), a U.N. initiative working to reduce appliance energy use in emerging economies (and of which NRDC is a founding partner), recently published model regulations for reducing the energy use of new air conditioners and refrigerators, as well as harmful emissions from the refrigerant gases they use. The U4E energy efficiency recommendations are largely consistent with China’s new standard and will help countries that import air conditioners set energy efficiency regulations that demand performance as good or better than the Chinese standard. The new Chinese standards send a clear signal that China can supply efficient models to any country that wants them.
Air conditioning demand is exploding around the world, particularly in warm, populous countries with growing economic power, including south and southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America. If widely adopted in these growing RAC markets, the U4E-recommended policies would cut global carbon dioxide emissions and electricity bills dramatically further. China can play a key role in helping these regions benefit from high efficiency RACs through its Belt and Road initiative.
China’s new standards are a show of leadership from the world’s biggest air conditioning buyer and maker. Other countries would do well to note that China has raised the bar, and should follow suit by considering adoption of the U4E template regulations. With a little bit of global cooperation, we can cut the environmental and economic costs of a vast majority of cooling appliances sold around the world.