Hong Kong shopfronts blasting out cold air reflect a blatant misuse of power

Paul Stapleton says open storefronts cooling the street exemplify how well-meaning conservation events like ‘No Air Con Night’ end up being mostly symbolic, given that Hongkongers’ electricity use continues to rise

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 3:13pm
UPDATED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 8:01pm

Last week, a message arrived in my workplace email inbox reminding me that October 7 is “No Air Con Night”. The message was from local environmental group Green Sense, inviting me to make a pledge on their website that I would not use any air conditioning at home from 7pm until 7am the following morning.

Green Sense is to be commended for raising our collective consciousness about how use of electricity has a negative impact on our environment. And by inviting all of Hong Kong to make a pledge not to use air conditioning, at least some of us may be triggered into forming new conservation-oriented habits.

This pledge has parallels with the annual Earth Hour, when we are asked to turn off our lights for an hour starting at 8.30pm.

While these efforts by environmental groups are well-meaning and leave many of us with good intentions, the simple reality is that they are mostly symbolic. The fact that the No Air Con Night is at a time of year when many would be switching off their air conditioners during sleeping hours anyway is quite revealing. In other words, if environmental groups want the public to participate even in a symbolic event, it’s best to ask them to make only a minimal sacrifice. Likewise, Earth Hour proponents dare not to ask more of us than an hour in the dark.

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In the meantime, our residential electricity consumption here in Hong Kong marches onwards and upwards, increasing by an average of over 2 per cent a year since 2004, which far outpaces our population growth. Simply stated, this means the average person is using more and more electricity. And Green Sense is correct in highlighting our use of air conditioning because close to a third of our total residential consumption of electricity is used for cooling.

While most people are well-intentioned when they participate in switch-off events, very few will tolerate more than a sweaty night or two, or much more than an hour of darkness during the prime evening hours. And this brings us to the stark reality of the situation: personal sacrifices for the sake of the environment will always be trumped by creature comforts.

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This means a larger force needs to be involved, namely, the government. Already, there have been encouraging new laws enacted, such as the low-sulphur fuel law preventing ships in local waters from using cheap, polluting fuel. The phasing out of the most highly polluting vehicles is another important step in the right direction. All well and good, but our electricity consumption keeps rising, which contributes to our awful air quality.

This brings me to one of the most egregious acts perpetrated against the environment that we experience for several months every summer. I speak of the wide-open doors of retail shops in many of our street-level shopping districts. There are few residents of Hong Kong who have not experienced a blast of cool relief when walking past a shop on a hot, humid day. Presumably, retail outlets use the air conditioning to attract customers. And it must be effective; otherwise, shop owners would not be willing to pay the huge electricity bill to cool the air outside their shops. However, just as the No Air Con Night symbolises our concern about the environment, so the open-door policy of shop owners reflects an obscene disregard for conservation efforts.

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Recently, our government has enacted a law that fines shop owners for hogging space on the pavement in front of their shops where they pile their goods for sale. The idea is to create more space for pedestrians. Thus, would it be too much of an effort for the government to enact a parallel law that would penalise shop owners who cool the great outdoors in front of their shops, while at the same time providing subsidies for new doors or windows?

In essence, a new mindset needs to be put into place. It stands to reason that if the government cares enough to fine shop owners for taking some of our pavement space, they should also care enough to stop the deplorable waste of electricity and abuse of planetary health by shops that leave their doors open.

Paul Stapleton is an associate professor at The Education University of Hong Kong