Time to act against those trying to be too cool

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 June, 2005, 12:00am

A chill wind is blowing and someone should do something about it - like turning the air conditioner to a more bearable and fuel-efficient level.

Visitors to Hong Kong in the midst of summer are impressed by the amount of air conditioning we have. Like luxury items, we flaunt it - often directing it, as cold as possible, through wide-open shopfronts onto footpaths to lure potential shoppers inside. Doubtless the higher electricity bills are passed on to customers in the price of goods.

That is not the case, though, for government offices and schools. That air conditioners in such places are often set too low can only be because staff consider having it at that level normal.

Determining what normal is can be difficult; after all, not everyone's metabolism is the same and some people prefer colder temperatures to others. Genetics also come into play - Scandinavians and Saharan Africans doubtless would have heated debate over the issue.

But setting air conditioning too low is not just a matter of cost and who pays the bills - it is also highly polluting, pouring hundreds of thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each day.

That is the crux of a campaign by the local environmental group Green Sense, which is trying - without much success - to get schools to turn up the temperature. After a year of pushing for air conditioners to be switched on only when the temperature gets to 26 degrees Celsius - and then to keep settings at between 23 and 25 degrees - just 42 of the city's 1,800 kindergartens, primary and secondary schools have signed up.

The excuse given for not participating is that most schools are near busy, noisy roads and that turning off the air conditioning and opening windows would deter learning.

If 300 schools joined, the group estimates 50 million electricity units could be saved annually, avoiding the emission of 30,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Such a statistic makes keeping a cool head difficult, even in a chilly taxi or frigid shopping mall. The problem, though, is that a taxi driver can be told to turn the air conditioning down, but finding the person to complain to in a mall is not that simple.

Hong Kong has not yet grasped the golden rule of restaurant owners the world over at closing time - the air conditioning is set to unbearable levels to get customers to leave, not stay.

The energy-strapped mainland can teach us a lesson. With insufficient electricity to go around for the past two years, authorities have asked managers of commercial buildings, malls, hotels and government offices to set air conditioners at no lower than 25 to 26 degrees.

Such an idea should be implemented here and policed religiously by the Environmental Protection Department - with fines for those trying to be too cool.