The first widespread study into air conditioner ownership in Canada found British Columbians are less likely than those in every other province to use cooling units.
Statistics Canada released its study into the prevalence of household air conditioning on Wednesday (July 19), which among other findings showed B.C. air conditioner use is well below the national average.
Six in 10 Canadians have access to air conditioning in their homes, but only 32 per cent of British Columbians do. While the west coast’s historically moderate climate differs from humid areas like Ontario, where 85 per cent of people have AC, access to cooling has been front of mind in recent summers following the 2021 heat dome that led to 619 deaths in B.C.
“With climate change projected to cause higher ambient temperatures and longer, more frequent and more intense extreme heat events, the health impacts of heat exposure are expected to increase,” the data agency said.
Air conditioning is one of the most effective adaptation strategies to reduce heat-related death and illness, StatsCan said, but there’s been little study on its reach in Canada.
The figures StatsCan released on Wednesday – which are the result of two surveys from 2017 – look to inform climate change adaptation strategies by identifying populations that have high health risks from heat and low access to air conditioning.
The study looked at a number of groups who are especially vulnerable to heat, including older adults who live alone and had compromised health due to chronic illness. The B.C. Coroner Service’s death panel into the heat dome found most of the people who died belonged to that group.
Racialized groups in B.C. were less likely to have AC, which was also the case in the prairies and the Atlantic provinces.
Looking nationwide, StatsCan revealed adults who live alone owned AC at significantly lower rates – a trend that B.C. matched.
Low-income people in every other region have greater access to AC than those who fall into that economic status in B.C., where just one in four own cooling units. B.C. and the prairies were the only places where those with less than a high school education had greater access to AC than the regional average.
Homeowners were more likely to have an air conditioner in B.C., Quebec, Ontario and the prairies. StatsCan said that aligns with previous research that observed lower AC rates in multi-family rental housing.
“Renters may have lower air conditioning rates because landlords do not provide air conditioning or building regulations may prohibit its use,” StatsCan said.
The province recently put millions toward air conditioners for 8,000 vulnerable people and the housing ministry is currently looking at adding “cooling requirements” into the provincial Building Code through a proposed update that’s expected to come into force this December.
A housing ministry spokesperson said the province is proposing all new homes provide one living space that is designed not to exceed 26 C – through elements like insulation, solar reflectivity or using cooling devices.
“Mandatory requirements for new buildings will help address the effects of extreme heat events on building occupants to improve public safety and better prevent fatalities,” the spokesperson said.
Experts who research extreme heat’s impact on Canadians say solutions shouldn’t be tied to air conditioning alone.
A 2022 study from the University of Waterloo’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation identifies B.C. valleys as one of three “red zones’ in Canada that will be hardest hit by extreme heat.
Noting air conditioners produce heat outside that can contribute to urban heat-island effects, the study’s recommendations include expanding urban green spaces, plus requiring homes and communities to use cool (reflective) building and paving surfaces, high-performance windows, shading devices and green roofs or facades.
The report said the latter reduces heat transfer to the inside, lasts longer than conventional roofs despite sometimes having higher upfront costs, offers a food-growing and leisure amenity to residents, cuts stormwater runoff and absorbs carbon pollution.
The report also highlights that creating more heat-resilient communities leads to co-benefits like lower energy bills and operating costs, better foot traffic in retail areas, boosted productivity and an improved environment.
“Extreme heat is an urgent national issue for Canada. To avoid worsening impacts, fatalities and costs resulting from rising temperatures, swift action is required,” the report states.