Vendors carry used air conditioners through the Alaba International Market in Lagos, Nigeria.

Vendors carry used air conditioners through the Alaba International Market in Lagos, Nigeria. Greenpeace / Kristian Buus

A Flood of Polluting Air Conditioners Hampers Africa’s Climate Efforts

As air conditioning sales in Africa soar, many of the units imported there are old and inefficient, driving up electricity consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. But some countries are taking action, banning the import of used air conditioners and adopting tough energy standards.

It’s early August and a dozen air conditioners are keeping Joy Obehi’s clients cool on another hot steamy day in Lagos, Nigeria. But invariably the electricity flickers off and her expensive diesel generator rumbles to life.

“The power goes out pretty much every day, usually for one hour or two hours,” said Obehi, who rents out short-term meeting space and spends as much as $300 a month on diesel fuel. “[Air conditioners] use a lot of power, but our clients expect our locations to be cooler.”

As African incomes rise and the number of hotter days from climate change increases, demand is exploding for air conditioners around the continent. In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, more than 500,000 air conditioning units are bought each year and the number is increasing by 4 to 5 percent annually, according to a recent report.

But that demand comes at a price: the plethora of energy-sapping — but inexpensive — air conditioners that are stressing already overburdened electricity grids, saddling consumers with high energy bills, contributing to more frequent outages that damage local economies, and making a significant contribution to the continent’s growing greenhouse gas emissions.

Millions of used and new inefficient AC appliances are being sold in Africa every year, many of them illegally. Many are obsolete secondhand appliances imported mostly from Europe, despite international laws forbidding such activity. The appliances also contain banned ozone-depleting refrigerants that are potent contributors to climate change.

Electricity demand for air conditioners is on track to jump 10-fold across Africa by 2040.

And with cooling demand proliferating due to urbanization and hotter temperatures, Africa’s air conditioning market is poised to get bigger. Electricity demand for air conditioners and other cooling appliances is on track to jump 10-fold across Africa by 2040, from 11 terawatt-hours (TWh) to 112 terawatt-hours, according to the International Energy Agency. If African countries adopt stricter air conditioning efficiency standards, energy demand could be cut in half, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 million tons by 2040, according to the United Nations.

Africa’s cooling challenge is part of a much larger trend. Worldwide demand for air conditioners is expected to more than triple in the next 30 years, from 1.6 billion units in 2018 to 5.6 billion units by 2050. That amounts to 10 new air conditioners being sold every second for the next three decades. Without government policies to make air conditioners cleaner and more efficient, greenhouse gas emissions from ACs and other cooling equipment will jump by a projected 90 percent by 2050 — a huge step backward in international efforts to limit global temperature increases to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, says a new UN report.

Now, some African countries are trying to tamp down on energy-guzzling cooling. Ghana is successfully enforcing a ban on imports of used cooling appliances, including air conditioners. Rwanda approved a similar ban, along with Africa’s toughest-ever energy performance standards for new cooling appliances, both of which are set to come into effect next year.

A half-dozen other countries, including Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa, have minimum performance standards for new air conditioners and refrigerators. But success is still largely elusive due to weak policies and minimal enforcement.

“There are not many harmonized efficiency policies at the moment in Africa, and many of them are out of date, not enforced, and not stringent,” said Patrick Blake, a policy expert at the UN’s United for Efficiency Program (U4E).

Most of the used air conditioners being imported into Africa, such as these in Lagos, are energy inefficient and highly polluting.

Most of the used air conditioners being imported into Africa, such as these in Lagos, are energy inefficient and highly polluting. Courtesy of Leslie Adogame

Among the countries struggling with the issue is Nigeria, Africa’s second-largest AC market behind Egypt. “Compliance with our energy standards is very, very slow,” said Etiosa Uyigue, executive director of a Nigerian environmental group, the Community Research and Development Center (CREDC), which has been pushing for more stringent mandatory energy standards and environmentally friendly refrigerants for all cooling appliances sold in the country.

The stakes are enormous. Air conditioner sales are rising steadily across the continent, especially in hotter, more prosperous countries in West Africa. Morocco, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast have all seen a doubling in air conditioner imports since 2010, whether used or new units, according to government data. The United Nations projects that air conditioner stocks will hit 1.5 billion units in Africa by 2030, up from 660 million in 2015.

The strains are already being felt. Nigeria’s limited power supplies, which are half the size of North Carolina’s despite having nearly 20 times more people, turn on and off every day and occasionally cause national blackouts, as happened 11 times in 2019. Hot sticky days when air conditioners are humming full throttle are the worst.

“We just had two outages today,” said Uyigue, speaking in July from his home in the capital Abuja, where he uses three generators and a small solar energy system to keep the lights on. A Nigeria Energy Commission study in 2014 estimated that air conditioners account for 25 percent of total energy consumption in Abuja and 17 percent nationally. Nigeria’s annual CO2 emissions have tripled since 1990. The country’s widespread reliance on noisy, polluting diesel generators costs the economy nearly $14 billion a year, primarily in added fuel expenses.

Meanwhile, Africa is tethered to an AC market dominated by high-polluting inefficient appliances.

Many air conditioners sold in Africa are low-efficiency units that could not be sold legally in the countries where they were made.

For years, many African countries have been flooded with millions of antiquated secondhand air conditioners and refrigerators imported primarily from Europe. Nigeria and other West African countries with high summer temperatures and close proximity to European shipping ports are especially popular destinations for used cooling appliances, which arrive stuffed into containers, cargo vehicles, and even used cars. The appliances are often broken and those that still work often consume two to three times more electricity than new models.

“They come in branded as new, but when they’re off-loaded it’s mostly near-end-of-life e-waste,” said Leslie Adogame, executive director of SRADev, a Nigerian nonprofit environmental health research group. “They’re certainly cheaper to buy, but they use a lot more energy and don’t meet environmental standards.”

A half-dozen African countries have joined a United Nations working group, launched in April, that is trying to stop these flows, many of which are unlawful. Shipping non-working electronic equipment is illegal under both the Basel Convention, an international treaty governing hazardous waste, and the European Union’s Waste Shipment Directive.

New cooling appliances being sold in Africa are not much better. Recent research by the energy efficiency nonprofit CLASP and the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development (IGSD) showed that 35 percent of new room air conditioners sold in Africa’s 10 largest countries in 2018 were low-efficiency units that could not be sold legally in the countries where they were made, including the United States, Japan, South Korea, and China. A quarter of the 650,000 low-efficiency units — none of which meet common efficiency standards used in developed countries — were imported from non-African countries, primarily China. The remaining three-quarters were largely imported and then assembled in Africa, mostly in Nigeria and Egypt.

A tailor uses a generator for backup electricity in Lagos. The city frequently loses power as growing energy demand strains Nigeria's limited electricity supplies.

A tailor uses a generator for backup electricity in Lagos. The city frequently loses power as growing energy demand strains Nigeria's limited electricity supplies. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images

“Environmentally harmful dumping is occurring in Africa,” said Gabrielle Dreyfus, senior scientist at IGSD. “These kinds of markets deprive consumers of a smarter choice by flooding markets with lower-price products that cost consumers more over time.”

The report also showed that 790,000 air conditioning units sold in Africa contained obsolete ozone-depleting, greenhouse gas refrigerants known as R-22, which are being phased out globally under the Montreal Protocol. Another 820,000 units contained R-410A refrigerants, a highly potent greenhouse gas with 2,000 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide. They are being phased out under the Montreal Protocol’s Kigali Amendment, beginning in 2019 in developed countries and later this decade in developing countries.

Efforts to halt these damaging trade flows have been going on for years, but most have been unsuccessful, in large part simply because more and more African consumers want affordable devices to stay cool.

Ghana is a noteworthy exception. Alarmed by the millions of obsolete cooling appliances that were entering the country and the widening gap between energy demand and power production, the country banned all used air conditioner and refrigerator imports in 2008. In 2013, when the government began enforcing the ban, illegal imports plummeted. Last year, new appliances, mostly from China, made up 95 percent of the market.

“We succeeded in reversing the market in favor of new appliances,” said Kofi Agyarko, director of energy efficiency and climate change at the Ghana Energy Commission, who credits tough enforcement for catalyzing the shift. While new, more efficient appliances cost two to three times as much as used ones, they consume a third as much electricity, with Ghanaians saving on average $140 a year on energy bills, Agyarko said.

But even if countries can effectively ban used imports, how can they limit the flood of inefficient new appliances into Africa?

Rwanda thinks it has the answer. Last year, as part of a comprehensive national cooling strategy, Rwanda enacted Africa’s toughest energy standards and energy labeling for new air conditioners and other cooling appliances. The mandatory standards, which take effect next year, are modeled after guidelines developed by the UN’s United for Efficiency program.

Brian Holuj, who leads the program’s work on cooling appliances, says Rwanda’s efforts are an important breakthrough. “For the first time in Africa, Rwanda will demonstrate the impact of mandatory policies, coupled with strong energy efficiency requirements and limits on global warming-damaging coolants in new products,” he said.

If other African countries follow Rwanda’s lead, AC energy demand would be cut in half from current projections.

If other African countries follow Rwanda’s lead, air conditioning energy demand would be cut in half from current projections, according to the UN. “More than two-dozen full-sized power plants could be avoided through more efficient air conditioners and refrigerators in Africa,” Holuj said.

A critical step, Holuj said, is for countries to come together regionally on consistent policies, backed by enforcement, that send a strong market signal to the industry. “The key is regional alignment,” he said, citing the EU’s success in developing common requirements and energy labeling.

Dreyfus, the scientist at the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, echoed this point: As long as markets for cheap products are able to flourish, high-efficiency appliances will have a hard time competing. “If a manufacturer feels they have to compete for market share by selling low-efficiency obsolete equipment, we have to close the loopholes to bring the market up so that they have the right marketplace in which to sell better products,” she said.

Nigeria has tried some of the approaches Ghana and Rwanda are using, but they are not working, according to CREDC’s Uyigue. Nigeria imposed an import ban on obsolete used cooling appliances in 2010, but it is not being enforced. It adopted voluntary energy performance standards and energy labels for air conditioners in 2017, but compliance is broadly lacking.

Numerous obstacles are impeding progress. The first is price — a low-performing air conditioner costs only $100 to $200. The second is trade barriers such as a 20 percent duty on imported assembled air conditioners, an important source of government revenue. The third — perhaps the biggest — is the government’s unwillingness to take the tough steps necessary to force a market shift.

“Political will — that’s what is missing,” said Adogame, executive director of SRADev in Nigeria.

Until that changes, Nigerians can expect more low-quality ACs, more power outages, more costly generator bills and more climate pollution. And as AC-demand continues to soar — only 20 percent of Nigerians have air conditioners today — the challenges will only grow.