Air conditioning is a necessity, not a luxury — despite the emissions and energy costs, advocates say

Air conditioning units for sale at a Canadian Tire store in Vancouver in June. The province should be working to give air conditioners to help vulnerable people, advocates say. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Air conditioning units for sale at a Canadian Tire store in Vancouver in June. The province should be working to give air conditioners to help vulnerable people, advocates say. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

B.C. planners and policy analysts say the benefits of air conditioners during extreme heat situations are very clear — and concerns over their environmental and financial impact show misplaced priorities.

During last year's deadly heat dome in B.C., authorities found over two-thirds of the 619 people that died did not have air conditioning in their homes.

With extreme heat events more likely in future due to climate change, advocates are asking the province to provide vulnerable people with air conditioning units.

Data shows air conditioner use is already on the rise in B.C., leading to an associated energy and emissions toll — including one instance of the province's public housing authority switching off cooling in some of its properties to save energy.

Did people who died during 2021 B.C. heat dome have AC?


Robyn Chan, chair of the Vancouver City Planning Commission, says little has changed since last year with respect to B.C.'s extreme heat response. Unlike other jurisdictions like Portland, Ore., B.C. has never handed out air conditioners through social assistance programs or otherwise.

"I haven't seen anything put into place that is actually providing people with cooler temperatures, which is what they need to survive," she told CBC News.

"We've been pushing the city and Vancouver Coastal Health to … make faster changes because we've already seen the impacts this summer of what a heat wave can do."

In a 2021 memo during the heat dome, the planning commission — a volunteer body that advises the city on short and long-term planning solutions — had recommended the city work directly with health providers to hand out air conditioners, as well as ensure 24-hour access to shaded parks.

Age of those who died during 2021 B.C. heat dome

Research shows that air conditioners can help vulnerable people who cannot easily regulate their own body temperatures or have mobility issues.

Meanwhile, energy costs from ACs are rising. A 2020 report from B.C. Hydro found residential air-conditioning use had more than tripled since 2001, and many residents were adding an average of $200 to their summer bill by using air conditioning units inefficiently.

B.C. Housing facilities switched off cooling

Chan said that as the one-year anniversary of the heat dome approached, she unearthed a 2017 report that showed that B.C. Housing — the provincial body responsible for low-income housing — had switched off the cooling function in four of their properties for over a decade.

The report describes how the authority had retrofitted certain properties with heat pumps in 2010-11, which provide cooling as well as heating, and what they learned from the process.

It details how the cooling function was switched off in three Vancouver locations and one Surrey location, containing 179 housing units in total, due to energy costs.

"The heat pumps introduced cooling in the summer and that was not thought out very well. They were only supposed to provide cooling above 27 C outside, but our tenants quickly found out that they could override that," reads a quote from an unnamed maintenance supervisor in the report.

"Because the tenants are not paying the heat pump electricity bills, there are certainly abuses."

Chan said the case showed that B.C. Housing seemed to prioritize financial costs over tenant safety or comfort.

In a statement, a spokesperson for B.C. Housing said cooling functions at one property had been reactivated this year after the report came to light, with work underway to reactivate the function at the other three locations.

"While we have more to do, we have taken important steps to enhance our readiness for extreme heat events," the spokesperson said, pointing to an initiative that saw the authority hand out fans, spray bottles, and portable air conditioners to some tenants on a case-by-case basis.

Ventilation difficulties

Gabrielle Peters, a disabled writer and policy analyst, said the B.C. Housing incident was reflective of a wider attitude in B.C. that paints air conditioning as a luxury, and not a life-saving necessity.

"I think people, in order to live, should be allowed to pollute as much as is necessary," she said.

Peters says that in B.C., many low-income people live in small apartments that do not have good ventilation — often relying exclusively on windows for air circulation, which means heat often stays inside longer and leads to people feeling heat exhaustion quicker.

She says the current provincial response to heat — which involves cooling centres and advice for individuals — is at odds with science, and reflects ableist attitudes.

"They're giving advice for the people least likely to die in heat and totally ignoring the rest of us," she said.

"Just telling people … to put a cold cloth on themselves or something is very much a temporary measure for a modest increase in external pressure. It's not a way to cope with extreme heat."

Peters says policymakers should work to create a multifaceted approach to handing out air conditioners as a form of heat mitigation.

This includes classifying them as medical devices, providing them through community centres and food banks, funding mutual aid groups to assist with installing them, and creating summer projects for university students around heat mitigation.

A coroner's report into last year's heat wave deaths recommended the Ministry of Health review the possibility of making air conditioners and other cooling devices available to vulnerable people as medical equipment by December this year.

Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency forecasts that increasing demand for cooling will lead to a spike in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

In a report co-authored with the United Nations Environment Programme, it said an estimated 3.6 billion cooling appliances are currently in use; but if cooling was provided to everybody who needs it, as many as 14 billion of the appliances would be required by 2050.