Civic responsibility wilts, air conditioners sprout

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 October, 2010, 12:00am

The air conditioner has been something of a poisoned chalice for the people of Hong Kong. It has enabled us to work through the summers in reasonable comfort, and perhaps contributed to overall productivity in Hong Kong, which sets this city apart from others which have taken a more relaxed approach to working during the heat of summer.

But at the same time, it has created a need to wear warmer clothing indoors than outdoors and has perhaps contributed to the phenomenon of summer colds. Meanwhile roads are being built within a few metres of human living space, since nobody is expected to open windows any more.

This is an unhealthy state of affairs. And as we all know, keeping air conditioners on all day long throughout the year has an enormous environmental cost.

With the gradual increase in environmental awareness in recent years, Hongkongers have begun trying to reduce their use of air conditioners. But a recent survey by Green Sense shows just how difficult it is to be environmentally responsible when those around you do not share that sense of responsibility.

Of the 1,262 residents polled, 53 per cent said they were forced to switch on their air conditioners because of the hot exhaust from the air conditioners of their neighbours. In other words, one family turned on the air conditioner because someone else had turned theirs on. No doubt, once the second family had turned their air conditioner on, blowing exhaust fumes into another household, a third, and then a fourth would have turned theirs on too.

Civic responsibility is a fragile concept and can easily be undermined by the fact that others have not subscribed to it.

Sadly, the government does not seem to have understood this and still thinks it can impose environmental regulations by enforcing them on some parties, but not others. Exemptions from a ban on idling engines, for example, are now being considered for taxi drivers in queues. Minibus drivers are calling for the same.

Four years ago Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen launched Operation Blue Skies, with the aim of combating pollution by reducing wasteful energy consumption. He set an example by shedding his jacket and tie at work in the summer months and directing government offices to set air conditioners to maintain a workplace temperature of no lower than 25.5 degrees Celsius.

As we report today, the government maintains this rule and encourages, but does not require, the private sector to follow suit. Sadly, the example is more often observed in the breach. Other governments around Asia have taken a more proactive approach, for example by legislating for a minimum air-conditioned temperature.

Nonetheless, the voluntary approach would still make a difference if people could be convinced to make relatively small adjustments in their lifestyles, such as making a little less use of air conditioning and greater use of energy-efficient water-based units, and turning more to the electric fans upon which the city once relied to stay cool.

Otherwise, with the number of hot nights above 28 Celsius steadily increasing, the use of air conditioners can only rise.

Change in human behaviour will only occur if there is a united effort. Without this, those taking responsibility will have to bear the consequences of the irresponsible, while the irresponsible are rewarded.