The future of air-conditioning and its impact on society
Photography by Gaia Squarci, research by ENERGYA at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice
The exhibition is on view from May 19 to July 31, 2023 in Venice at two locations: Cultural Flow Zone, Dorsoduro 1392 & Cortile Grande of Ca' Foscari University Venice, Dorsoduro 3246. Free entry, Mon through Sat 10am-6pm & Sun 3pm-6pm
In 2022, climate journalist David Wallace-Wells, author of the book “The Uninhabitable Earth”, noted in the New York Times that the deadly heatwaves which currently endanger the health and survival of three-quarters of the world population cannot be called “extreme” events, because they are not rare anymore. In this scenario, The Cooling Solution examines the rush of almost every household on the planet to buy an air-conditioning unit (AC), as soon as they can afford one. According to the report of the International Environmental Agency, “The Future of Cooling”, published in 2018, 10 new AC units will be sold every second for the next 30 years, bringing the number of installed cooling units to 5.6 billion globally by 2050.
The Cooling Solution is a photographic and scientific project that aims to show how people adapt to conditions of high temperature and humidity across geographies, cultures, and socioeconomic conditions in very different societies. Starting from the title, the term “solution” is meant to call this adaptation paradigm into question. The project examines the phenomenon of rising demand of AC in its various facets, stressing the numerous shortcomings and drawbacks, as well as the tension with the purpose that motivates its utilization, the need to protect the most fragile members of society.
In the last decades, AC has established itself as the ubiquitous and intensely advertized strategy to cope with extreme heat in different parts of the world, no matter how hot or humid it may get. The global consequence of millions of people acting individually and independently in a world that tends to get stuck on a few dominant technologies, such as mechanical cooling, is the buildup of huge amounts of energy demand and emissions. These massive yet complex impacts easily go unnoticed, together with the increased discomfort of the millions who still cannot afford AC. While the world’s population was under 2 billion in 1902, when the first AC was invented, today all mega cities are coming to terms with heatwaves.
The Cooling Solution shares cooling practices through personal stories and experiences of people from across the world. It combines scientific research, visual approaches, and storytelling to travel through the daily experiences of people dealing with thermal discomfort in Brazil, India, Indonesia and Italy. It brings together scientific findings and personal stories of how climate, socioeconomic conditions, demographic characteristics, urbanization and urban spaces, culture and society influence the way people keep themselves cool, using the communicative power of visual arts to make academic knowledge accessible to a broader audience. Ambient cooling is indeed an essential service for sustainable development, but technology and mechanical air-conditioning is not the only space cooling solution possible.
This photographic project is a journey through experiences of cooling, lack-of-cooling, hypercooling, cooling dumping, cooling affordability, traditional cooling, cooling technology and innovation in Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Italy. While the predominant cooling solution might indeed be difficult to replace in some circumstances, in others alternative cooling solutions do exist.
This project aims to raise awareness about the health consequences of rising temperatures, the growing need for space cooling services, and the dangers and risks of accepting AC as the only available heat reduction strategy.
Enrica De Cian
Department of economics
Ca’ Foscari University of Venice
Center for Environmental Humanities (NICHE)
Fondazione Centro Euro-Mediterraneo sui Cambiamenti Climatici (CMCC)
The ability of human beings to use energy has been a major driver of global environmental and societal change, and the inconsiderate use of energy is one of the main causes behind climate change. But energy is also being used to cope with the consequences of climate change. Now, imagine the 10 billion people living on our planet in 2050 using energy to mitigate climate impacts on health, labor productivity, agriculture and economic production. This new gigantic challenge has just begun to draw attention in the scientific literature and the public debate, although not as much as needed. Today, we still do not quite know what the implications of piling up all these energy-intensive responses to heat across the planet will be.
The ENERGYA research project aims to create more knowledge around this new looming challenge. Looking back, I can say that we, as a team, have succeeded. We have managed to improve our understanding of how people use energy, in relation to climate, socioeconomic conditions, and cultures across the world. We have depicted possible future scenarios for the use of air conditioning, energy demand, greenhouse gas emissions, and local air pollutants. We have examined societal implications and asked who will be left behind and why. Heat and energy are invisible, yet even more invisible is the inability to access essential energy services, and the consequences of such deprivation. As a researcher, I also soon realized that the scientific knowledge we were producing was too detached from the public. We were pointing to the factors leading the world on a dangerous trend, but we were failing to push people to reconsider their lifestyles. That is when I fully embraced the idea of using visual arts to complement the propositional knowledge generated by ENERGYA.
In my opinion, Gaia’s photographs are able to move people deeply and they made me truly realize the transformative power of images. Nowadays you hear the expression “transformative power" over and over again. However I believe it describes the power of Gaia's images precisely. Heat and energy represent the twin challenge we now need to face, and The Cooling Solution is our attempt at making it visible and loud.
School of Geography and the Environment
University of Oxford
Oxford Martin School
Center for Environmental Humanities (NICHE)
If we want to understand local realities at a visceral level, it is essential to conduct research in the field while sharing with the people the lived experiences they come across on a daily basis. An ethnographer can spend months, if not years, in a tropical locality and can therefore experience prima mano what it means to be persistently afflicted by hot and humid weather, as well as understanding how locals can adapt to heat. Gathering such knowledge and sharing it should allow us to enrich current plans for heat-adaptation measures through well-established behaviors and cross-cultural practices. With increasing temperatures and evidence of weather tropicalization all around the globe, even in temperate climates, people find themselves unprepared to cope with extreme heat events. These types of events are still rare in temperate climates, so long-term policies which should provide infrastructural and behavioral guidance for an ever-warming future are in fact limited.
I am happy to be part of this peculiar adventure because I believe ethnography combined with art can help people and policymakers visualize, experience, and engage more deeply with other people’s realities in different parts of the world. Art can be a bridge in translating scientific messages otherwise inaccessible for non-experts in the field. It functions therefore as a mediator, fundamental to inform society and possibly make changes happen. Such deeper engagements with research should be able to move policies, but they can also be important precursors to influence behavioral changes. With this project, we would like to give back to society the fruits of our research through science, art, and ethnography.
When you look at a photograph, how often do you know how hot or cold it feels for the people inhabiting the frame? Deserts or glaciers offer easy clues, the clothing of passersby in urban spaces can suggest the season, but it is impossible to feel the effect of that climate on your skin, truly empathizing with the condition of discomfort someone might be experiencing. With that in mind, we tried to disseminate visual clues in the images, showing windowless claustrophobic spaces whose architecture ignores the need for air circulation, and areas whose development is based on easy profit rather than essential human needs. Alongside temperature-related data, we included humidity, a factor whose critical impact we fully realized only by working, and suffering, in the same environments. A regular temperature of 27 degrees Celsius might sometimes seem trivial compared to some of the extremes our planet hits during heatwaves, but if paired with 97% of humidity it makes it very hard to complete any basic tasks. We went from empathizing with workers who stoically operate on a daily basis in the boiling outdoors to freezing in overcooled trains and shopping malls. Inequality is the most pervasive factor we encountered in our research, and if even the vast majority of innovative alternatives to AC still require substantial investments, others do not, opening the way to a viable change of direction. Enrica de Cian’s forward-thinking drive to combine scientific knowledge with creativity put us in front of an exciting challenge, and it was sometimes hard to make choices that could mediate between the two souls of the project. The curators of the Kublaiklan collective were essential in making this happen in a way that, we hope, can bring the content out of academic circles, activating a transversal audience towards personal engagement.
This website is part of a project that has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (Grant agreement No 756194). It has received contributions from Fondazione CMCC, the ACTION Marie Curie project led by Marinella Davide (grant agreement No 841291) and it is jointly organized by the Department of Economics at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and THE NEW INSTITUTE Centre for Environmental Humanities.
The Cooling Solution is on display between May 19 and July 31, 2023, in the Cortile Grande at Ca’ Foscari University and Ca’ Foscari Zattere in Venice.
The photographic project would not have been possible without Jacopo Crimi, Gaia Squarci, Antonella Mazzone and Kublaiklan. The scientific research in this volume was conducted by the ENERGYA project team led by Enrica De Cian. We are also grateful to Wilmer Pasut and Lorenza Pistore for their suggestions, and to Cecilia Petrucci and Kiera Jane Bailey for their assistance during their internship. With this work we also wish to remember the late Lucy Samvura Motsi and her important contribution to our research and photographic project.
Scientific coordination: Enrica De CianPhotography: Gaia SquarciProject coordination and website: ElementsixArt direction and design: KublaiklanEthnographic research: Antonella MazzoneScientific contributions: Talita Borges Cruz, Paula Borges da Silveira Bezerra, Lorenza Campagnolo, Francesco Pietro Colelli, Marinella Davide, Giacomo Falchetta, Dattakiran Jagu, Malcolm Mistry, Filippo Pavanello, André F.P. Lucena, Roberto Schaefer, Teresa Randazzo, Sebastian Renner, Ian Sue WingEditing and proofreading: Francesco Bassetti and Sara Cardullo
Today and 2050 data are always represented with two shades of red. In pie charts and histograms, 2050 data is represented as an increase with respect to the present day.
Climate projections used for 2050 refer to RCP.4.5, a medium emission scenario, corresponding to approximately 2.5°C of global warming by the end of the century.
- Air-Conditioning is always referred to as AC.
- AC adoption and electricity use always referto the residential sector only.
- When AC adoption is 100% the pie chart is fully colored. Think of it as a ticking clock.
Temperature and humidity
Each picture is accompanied by temperature and humidity data (ERA5 Copernicus) at the time of shooting in any given location.
Scientific references are reported in chapter 07.Bibliography. The text includes some quotations from selected papers, and they are reported with the name and surname of one of the authors of the cited paper.