Fans in the Green Sense office. Photo: Paul Yeung

Hong Kong’s obsession with air conditioning is bad for us all

The environmental damage caused and the health risks should make us all mindful of keeping the dial at a sensible temperature

Air conditioners account for 30 per cent of Hong Kong’s annual energy use and residential and commercial buildings contribute 60 per cent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. It is a vicious circle, as our special report in the Life section this week noted. As we burn fossil fuels to generate electricity, we pollute the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases, feeding the need for more air conditioning.

Looked at in this light, even one voluntary night without air conditioning is symbolically significant. The environmental group Green Sense has declared tonight “No Air Con Night”. The group has moved the event back from September in the hope that more bearable weather will result in more people than last year’s estimated 88,000 households being willing to switch off and take part. The reluctance of many to do so says something about most Hongkongers’ expectation of cool air wherever they go, without realising or having regard for the environmental impact.

Yet the obsession with full-on air conditioning that chills skin and clothing damp with perspiration cannot be good for our health. Environmentally, air conditioning consumes a lot of electricity, making air pollution worse and contributing to global warming, while dirty air con units can increase the spread of airborne diseases.

New technology that is making air conditioners more climate friendly could make a difference as the price comes down. In Hong Kong, for example, a heat pump – an all-in-one air conditioner, heater and water heater which operates on the principle of heat recovery – is being used in some commercial premises, such as swimming pools, and is just beginning to be introduced to households. Meanwhile, an inexorable rise in the city’s electricity consumption, outpacing population growth, calls for redoubled efforts to spread voluntary compliance with a sensible minimum air conditioned temperature which, by consensus, is well above 20 degrees Celsius.