• The city uses too much air conditioning, contributing to record heat, and the government must take measures to reverse this dangerous trend
A woman fans herself in Tsim Sha Tsui. Photo: May Tse

Amid the media's blanket coverage of the protests this summer, a story that came and went quickly was that of our exceptionally warm July, which registered 0.7 degrees above the long-term norm. It followed a very hot June, which was 1.1 degrees above the norm and which, in turn, completed the warmest temperatures on record for the first six months of a year in Hong Kong.

Such record temperatures have now become back-page news. In normal times, the extreme heat we are experiencing would be generating more discussion, if not concern, but somehow the general population has grown accustomed to the warming, plus of course, Hong Kong has other things to worry about. Anyway, escaping the heat is easy with the omnipresent air conditioning. And therein lies a problem.

In Hong Kong, air conditioning accounts for about 30 per cent of all electricity consumption, by far the largest end-use. Obviously, most of this usage is in the summer months, and given that close to two-thirds of local electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels, simple arithmetic reveals that the use of air conditioning is a major contributor towards Hong Kong's total carbon footprint and local air pollution.

One of the reasons almost everyone these days uses air conditioning is the affordability of electricity in Hong Kong. Compared to other countries, the price here is low. Germany is almost three times higher than Hong Kong and in New York and London electricity costs about double. Clearly, low-cost electricity feeds into people's behaviour. Using an air conditioner through the night covered up with blankets is common around town; however, a ceiling fan which uses far less electricity " by some estimates over 90 per cent less " can be equally comfortable.

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At the same time, many buildings around town have stairwells and corridors that lead directly outside without doors. Such designs thumb their nose at energy conservation.

Conservation can occur at the individual level if people set their air conditioners at warmer temperatures, use a fan or even buy a solar panel for their rooftop; however, such a piecemeal approach is unlikely to bring about a significant reduction in electricity usage. Even if movements take hold like the "flight shame" campaign in Europe " which encourages people to stop flying " the reduction in carbon emissions is unlikely to add up to much. Instead, what is required is serious legislation from our government.

Taking our massive electricity consumption for air conditioning as an example, the government could require that all newly constructed homes have a ceiling fan in each room. It could also provide subsidies to retrofit existing residences with fans. A further idea is to mandate that all cladding on new buildings be light-coloured. Lastly, we need a law to prevent shops from blasting cool air onto our footpaths " a poster child of environmental abuse if there ever was one.

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Such policies require out-of-the-box thinking, but examples exist overseas. Government initiatives and laws in countries such as Germany and Switzerland that require solar panels on roofs, and similar policies that encourage the use of renewable energy, show that large-scale intervention is both possible and effective.

As for our low electricity costs, clearly this issue is a tough nut to crack. Even small increases are likely to upset the public, especially the poor. One solution, however, is to provide general allowances to public housing and low-income residents to offset the increase. Higher charges for electricity would encourage overall conservation while the allowances, decoupled from electricity tariffs, would help to offset the increase. Such a system would be better than the just-announced one-off electricity charge subsidy of HK$2,000, because if allowances are decoupled from electricity usage, there is better motivation for the consumer to conserve electricity.

Because of the present record heat, along with the omnipresent news about climate change, our government's lack of creative initiatives in this regard is exceedingly disappointing. Although a different sort of heat is presently occupying our government, longer term it needs to find solutions before we reach boiling point.

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

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