What record air conditioner sales reveal about India heatwave

Air conditioning units hang from a building during high temperatures in New Delhi, India, on Thursday, May 30, 2024. T
India is the world's fastest-growing market for air conditioners [Getty Images]

Govind Ram, a junk dealer living on the outskirts of the Indian capital, Delhi, bought an air conditioner in May after his children pleaded with him.

A fiery heatwave was scorching the city and its neighbourhood, and his school-going children complained of “choking” heat. Using his savings, Mr Ram bought the air conditioner for his children’s bedroom. This relief, he says, has come at a cost – his electricity bill last month soared to seven times the usual amount.

“I’ve endured the worst summers under just a fan. But this year, my children suffered so much that I had to buy our family’s first air conditioner,” Mr Ram said.

Over the past five decades, India has faced over 700 heatwaves but this summer’s severe and unrelenting heat has to count among the worst, experts believe. Some 97% of Indian households are electrified, with 93% relying on fans for comfort, according to think tank Council on Energy Environment and Water (CEEW). But this year, India’s air conditioning market has surged like never before.

“In my 45 years in the air-con industry, I've never seen anything like this. The spike in demand is a complete surprise, with sales likely to more than double this summer compared to last year,” says B Thiagarajan, managing director of Blue Star, a leading cooling and refrigeration company.

A fish vendor waiting for customers takes shade under an umbrella on a hot summer afternoon in New Delhi on May 29, 2024, amid ongoing heatwave.
Nearly a billion people across 23 states are exposed to heat stress in India [EPA]

The sale of air conditioners will possibly see an unprecedented growth of 60% this summer in India - March to July - from the usual 25-30% growth in previous years, Mr Thiagarajan reckons. Around a decade or more ago, he remembers, sales would peak in the last week of May. “Now demand peaks in April.” Companies have sold in three months what they would usually sell in nine.

Despite only 8% of India’s 300 million households owning air conditioners, with some having multiple units, India is the world's fastest-growing AC market. Of the 170 million units sold globally last year, China purchased 90 million, while India bought 12 million.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), a Paris-based energy think tank, predicts a nine-fold rise in home air conditioner ownership in the country by 2050, outpacing growth in ownership of all other household appliances, including TVs, refrigerators and washing machines.

By then, India’s total electricity demand from home air conditioners would surpass Africa’s current total electricity consumption, reflecting the ongoing trends in energy system evolution, according to IEA.

“The rising demand reflects, at once, rising aspirations, disposable incomes and extreme weather,” Mr Thiagarajan said.

Air conditioner units placed near windows of residential apartment building in Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India, on Sunday, May 7, 2023
India's high-rise apartments are often poorly ventilated [Getty Images]

Notably, 95% of Indian air-con buyers are aspirational middle-class first-time purchasers; over 65% hail from smaller cities and towns; and more than half buy through zero-interest consumer loans. Also, the average buyer is now in their thirties. Most of the sales come from the hotter northern region – since mid-May, for example, daily temperatures in Delhi have consistently stayed around or above 40C (104F).

Experts say Indian cities have become “heat traps” due to unbalanced development. Nearly a billion people across 23 states are exposed to heat stress, according to CEEW. Green spaces are scarce. Rapid growth is swallowing up water bodies which help cool the environment. Increasing greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, factories and construction activities are raising temperatures further. India’s high-rise boom has led to mostly poorly ventilated apartments and glass and chrome office buildings, which absorb and reflect heat. All this is making cities hotter and more uncomfortable to live in.

But this is only one part of the story. To gauge how people were coping with rising temperatures, a recent nationwide survey by Artha Global’s Centre for Rapid Insights (CRI), a think tank, posed the question: “In the afternoon, when it is hot outside, is the inside of your home comfortable?”

a bicycle repair shop in New Delhi, India, on Friday, May 19, 2023. T
A man uses a cooler at his bicycle repair shop in Delhi in summer [Getty Images]

About 32% of respondents reported their homes as hot and uncomfortable, highlighting India's struggle with extreme temperatures. Among those who can cool their homes, 42% rely on energy-intensive air conditioners or coolers, indicating that managing the heat often demands costly solutions.

Also, only one in eight four-wheeler owners found their homes uncomfortable in extreme heat, compared to nearly half of those without any vehicle. Conversely, about 40% of both two-wheeler and four-wheeler owners rely on ACs or coolers for home comfort, while only 16% of non-vehicle owners use these cooling solutions.

The data highlights how the poor face extreme heat even indoors, without direct sun exposure, said Neelanjan Sircar, director of CRI. In other words, the "gap between rich households, who already own air conditioners, and poor households, who are not yet able to buy them, is widening", according to a study by researchers from University of California, Berkeley and University of Mannheim, Germany on air conditioning and global inequality.

Living in windowless slum hutments with poor ventilation and erratic electricity makes staying indoors unbearable. Many slum dwellers literally work next door in luxury condominiums with 24/7 electricity. One told a newspaper recently: “I don’t want to return to my slum. When I work [in an apartment] I feel like lying down under the cool breeze of the AC”.

India needs to rejuvenate aquatic habitats – lakes, reservoirs, ponds, wetlands, canals. It also requires building cool houses, using cool roofs – white painted roofs to reduce indoor temperatures – supplying chilled water via pipelines to buildings, and installing more energy-efficient air conditioners.

A boy jumps to cool himself in a pond on a hot summer day in New Delhi
India needs to rejuvenate aquatic habitats – lakes, reservoirs, ponds, wetlands, canals [AFP]

Last year 63 countries, including the US, Canada, and Kenya, signed the world's first-ever pledge to drastically reduce cooling emissions. India did not. Shalu Agrawal of CEEW, however, says India has made progress. As one of the first countries to implement a cooling action plan, India has pursued nearly two decades of policies to improve AC energy efficiency. Inverter ACs, which are more efficient, now dominate the market, and companies set a default temperature of 24C for energy efficiency. Energy ratings for fans are also mandatory.

But evidence on the ground is mixed. A recent survey by LocalCircles, a community social media platform, found that 43% of air-con users in Delhi and its suburbs say that their units can't cool to the 23-24C range. Temperatures in the capital have often hovered above 45C this summer.

Nobody doubts that air conditioning is a necessity. But widespread air conditioner use also raises outdoor temperatures by expelling indoor heat. Their chemical refrigerants pose environmental risks.

Extreme weather events like heatwaves are becoming more frequent and intense with climate change. India needs to do a lot more to protect its people from heat. More than 140 people have died in extreme heat in India this summer, according to officials. The real number is possibly much higher.

As India battles an unforgiving heatwave, the surge in AC sales underscores a stark reality: the urgent need for equitable access to cooling solutions remains unmet.