Cold habits die hard

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 March, 2011, 12:00am


Have you ever felt a bit chilly at the cinema? How about on a bus? Do you keep a jacket in the office at all times? There's a good chance you've answered 'yes' to all three questions because Hong Kong is notorious for being too reliant on air conditioning all year round. And it's giving the city a bad reputation.

Popular travel guide Lonely Planet warns visitors in its latest edition that: '[Hong Kong's indoor] temperatures are set so low you may find your extremities turning blue.'

Research by WWF Hong Kong, meanwhile, found that air conditioning usage comprises 27 per cent of all electricity usage in the city, and that figure jumps to a whopping 60 per cent in the summer. In fact, indoor temperatures in Hong Kong are among the lowest in the world. The conservation group also says that if everyone in the world lived like a Hongkonger, we'd need 2.2 earths to survive.

But there's a bigger issue at stake than Hongkongers getting the sniffles - the Observatory says that the city's high use of electricity is accelerating global warming. Temperatures in the city are rising at 0.6 degrees Celsius per decade, more than three times the global average. Will this mean even more ferocious use of the air conditioner?

Many residents agree that the city's air conditioners are set too low. Online complaints about low indoor temperatures can be found on popular online forums in both Chinese ( and English (,, and seemingly every environmental group in the city, from Friends of the Earth to Green Sense, strongly disapproves of the excessive usage.

'It's one thing to have cold air blasting during the summer,' says Cyrus Lo Sai-man, an irate resident. 'But Hong Kong buses had cold air coming out of the vents even in December. It is absolutely stupid and makes me angry.'

Lo's opinion is shared by many Hongkongers - plenty of office workers admit to having a jacket specifically for office use, especially in summer when air conditioners are turned up to the max.

In October, local environmental group Green Sense organised a 'Hong Kong No Air Con Night', asking residents to turn off their air conditioners for a night. About 50,000 households participated, a small number given the almost 2.5 million households in the city.

'We organised the event hoping to promote reduction and wiser use of air conditioning,' explains Sun Ho-yan, senior project office of Green Sense.

What the group is pitching is something the government has tried, and failed, to do for years. In 2004, the Environmental Protection Department recommended room temperatures to be set at 25.5 degrees, which, according to EPD spokeswoman Eva Wong, is the ideal temperature suggested by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-conditioning Engineers.

'Studies have shown that under normal circumstances, over 90 per cent of people found this temperature to be comfortable,' she says. 'We've led by example - all government buildings have adhered to the practice for years.'

Yet it's obvious most establishments in the city aren't following suit. Cold air is still blowing through the vents on buses, cinemas and shopping malls - even during December and January.

Mandy Pang Man-wah, spokeswoman for Citybus and New World First Bus, says all buses are equipped with an automatic air conditioning system that adjusts temperature accordingly.

'Not even the bus driver can change the temperature,' she says. 'But the design of our system is to maintain a proper pre-set limit.'

But when the SCMP checked the temperature on March 3, our thermometer recorded 16 degrees (Bus 5B, Kennedy Town to Causeway Bay route).

Another venue that's developed a reputation for its cool temperatures is The Landmark in Central, and our thermometer check on March 2 showed a temperature of 19 degrees, which is the average temperature for shopping malls in the city, according to a study conducted by Polytechnic University.

That's still more than 5 degrees off the recommended setting, and according to studies by WWF Hong Kong, a rise of just one degree would save more than 4 per cent of annual energy use - a figure that equates to a saving of HK$26,000 a year for a standard Hong Kong building.

'Hong Kong's air conditioning is definitely too cold,' says Angus Wong Chun-yin of WWF Hong Kong. Wong wonders why our government doesn't take a more aggressive stance against excessive air conditioning usage, pointing out that Taipei recently passed a statute requiring all buildings to maintain the temperature above 26 degrees.

Eva Wong insists that instead of enforcing an iron-clad law, the department believes in promoting the cause through public education.

'We've been working with the business community through various chambers of commerce and trade associations to promote the temperature policy,' Wong says. 'We've also published various leaflets to disseminate the message into the community.'

Shirley Woo, communications manager of Hongkong Land, the property group that owns The Landmark, defends the venue's temperature settings.

'Authoritative research has indicated that productivity declines in an environment that is too hot, and reports also indicates that individuals perceive air quality to be higher when the temperature is cooler,' Woo says.

She adds that there are many variables in determining 'thermal comfort', such as humidity, radiation, clothing and activity level.

Mr Ho, owner of a cha chaan teng on Jaffe Road in Wan Chai, also favours a cooler indoor environment.

'Hong Kong weather can be hot and humid, and that first breeze of cold air is very refreshing,' Ho says. 'Customers are attracted to that. Yes, it gets too cold once you've cooled down but Hongkongers would rather have the immediate comfort of the first minute and then bear with the cold later.' He says during the dog days of summer, restaurants compete to have the coolest air conditioning.

It's one thing to have air conditioning on high during summer, but what about during other parts of the year, when the temperature is comfortable?

'Air conditioning in Cantonese is dubbed the 'cold-air machine', and I think that's really ingrained in our culture,' says Louis Chan Wan-kit, an architect. 'People of Hong Kong are taught to have either cold air or hot air, with nothing in between.'

That certainly seems to be the case in many offices.

Paul Wilkinson, a building services engineer and sustainability consultant for an international engineering consultancy, says most offices set temperatures at 18 degrees year-round except for a few weeks during winter.

'People have a false belief that the colder it feels, the fresher and purer the air is around them,' Wilkinson says. 'Perhaps since the Sars outbreak in 2003, people are now used to having their air conditioning running at very low temperatures.'

It appears that the conservation groups have their work cut out for them persuading Hongkongers to change their habits. But they will keep on trying.

'A typical Hong Kong household uses air conditioning 1,200 hours a year,' says Wong of WWF. 'We must tone that down for the earth.'

For others, it's more a matter of common sense. 'It's ridiculous that we have to carry jackets in the summer to wear indoors,' Green Sense's Sun says. 'It's summer outside and winter inside.'

Degrees of separation

We took a thermometer around town and gauged the temperature at various places over three days. The average maximum temperature outside over the three days was 23 degrees Celsius. Here are the results:

5B Bus (Kennedy Town to Causeway Bay): 16 degrees, March 3, 8pm

Caffe Habitu, Wan Chai: 17 degrees, March 3, 4pm

UA Cinema, Langham Place, Mong Kok: 18 degrees, February 28, 3pm

APM, Kwun Tong: 18 degrees, March 2, 9pm

101 Bus (Kennedy Town to Kwun Tong): 18 degrees, March 2, 8pm

The Landmark, Central: 19 degrees, March 2, 4pm

Starbucks, Harbour City, Tsim Sha Tsui: 19 degrees, March 4, 1pm

Hong Kong Central Library, Causeway Bay: 20 degrees, March 4, 2pm

Broadway Cinematheque, Yau Ma Tei: 21 degrees, March 3, 10pm

Times Square, Causeway Bay: 21 degrees, March 3, 4.30pm