This time last month I preparing to travel to hot and humid Singapore, where the numerous skyscrapers, shopping centres and swanky hotels are air conditioned in order to provide cooling relief to locals and visitors alike. Back in Lancaster, the chilly and often damp small houses are kept warm for residents, and the university buildings on campus are pumped with hot air to keep over 13,000 students happy and flu-free. The practice of controlling air temperature inside of buildings is prevalent all around the globe. But why do we do it?
For myself the answer is that it provides comfort. In the library, I don’t want to feel too hot or too cold because my main focus is the work that I need to concentrate on. At home, I want to fall asleep in a warm and snug environment during the colder months, but feel the cool air on my skin during hot summer nights. It’s a social practice myself and a lot of people have become accustomed to, and maybe even expect wherever we go. For example, during our stay in Singapore, we sometimes only chose to eat in restaurants that were air conditioned. This example reinforces Shove’s (2014) point explaining how consumer behaviours and choices are affected by the prevalence of societal practices, such as air temperature control. Societal practices can be such a big part of our lives, that we consider them to be a necessity. A survey conducted by Hong-Kong based start-up Ambi Labs found that 81% of Hongkongers rated their air conditioning units as the ‘most important summertime modern convenience’, more so than their phones, WiFi or even hot water for showers.
However, this need for comfort also comes with a cost. These air conditioning units account for 30% of Hong Kong’s annual energy use and the city’s buildings contribute to 60% of greenhouse gas emissions. The effects of hydrofluorocarbons used in these units are considered to be even more damaging than those of carbon dioxide. Like a fridge, air conditioning units remove the hot air inside by transferring it to the outside, thus warming outdoor climates even further.
It’s a vicious cycle – the more the planet warms outside, the more we feel the need to cool the air inside, which further heats the air we’re so desperately trying to avoid. It’s not only the indoor air temperature that we’re manipulating, we’re also affecting the temperature outdoors as well. Soon enough it won’t matter how comfortable we feel inside the safety of these buildings, when the discomfort and life-threatening consequences of global warming will become the much bigger issue.
Shove, E., 2014. Putting practice into policy: reconfiguring questions of consumption and climate change. Contemporary Social Science, 9(4), pp.415–429.
Image credits: Ulrike Keller.