Air conditioners worked overtime — and sucked more energy — as Bostonians suffered through the hottest month on record in July. Now, imagine what will happen as temperatures continue to rise worldwide in coming decades, and people and businesses struggle to keep cool.
A new study says climate change will further increase the demand for energy, on top of the growth in demand already expected because of population growth and economic development.
Even if the world’s climate didn’t change, global energy demand in 2050 is projected to be two to three times larger than it is today, according to the study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications.
The study predicts that if carbon emissions continue unrestrained, the 2050 energy demand number will be 25 percent to 58 percent higher than that.
If policies to reduce emissions are adopted and temperatures rise at a more moderate rate, 2050 energy demand will still be 11 to 27 percent higher, the report said.
Ian Sue Wing, an earth and environmental sciences professor at Boston University and a coauthor of the paper, said the study looked at statistical models of projected growth in population and economies and of projected changes in climate.
The study’s predictions varied at the regional level, particularly between tropical and temperate places.
The study found that some regions, mostly in Russia, Western Europe, Canada, Chile, and Argentina, could see up to a 10 percent net decrease in the expected energy demand as unrestrained climate change reduces heating bills.
On the other hand, the study found that the tropics and southern regions of the United States could see more than a 50 percent increase in the expected energy demand, while Southern Europe and China could see a 25 percent hike.
“The hot temperature in the tropics will only get hotter,” requiring more energy for cooling, Sue Wing said.
The researchers ultimately found that the decrease in energy needed for heating would be outpaced by the increase in energy needed for cooling, resulting in a net increase in energy demand worldwide.
Sue Wing said because climate change is a gradual process, what’s happening might not be visible to people.
“This is a process that is under our collective control, but it is hard to see one’s individual thumbprint on what’s going on,” he said. “If I set my thermostat, I don’t see the higher and higher temperatures outside while I remain comfortable inside.”
Sue Wing said the study raises troubling questions, including whether the rising energy demand will be met with energy created by burning fossil fuels, the thing that is creating climate change in the first place.
One possible solution is for growing populations and economies to practice energy conservation, he said.
Anthony Janetos, director of the Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future at Boston University, said the study underscores the importance of pursuing zero-carbon energy sources, rather than fossil fuels.
“We’ve known for a long time that energy demand would grow as a function of population growth and economic development,” Janetos said in a statement. “But for the first time, this paper has given us estimates of the growth in energy demand as a function of climate change itself.’’
Wing added: “We could use coal, or we could use renewable sources, and those two choices mean very different things for our future. With coal, [an increase in demand] will mean more greenhouse gas emissions. That’s what keeps me up at night.”
Also working on the study: Bas van Ruijven, a former visiting scholar at the Pardee Center, and Enrica De Cian, a professor at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice in Italy.