Cooling without warming: Cool Biz for a safer future?

Image courtesy - Paradise Island Resort, Maldives

Paradise, The Maldives. 10 May 2011

I’m sitting in Paradise – and freezing. This isn’t quite what I imagined it to be.

Well, actually I’m attending a serious inter-governmental meeting being held at the Paradise Island Resort and Spa in the Maldives.

The setting is exotic enough – I’m near some of the finest beaches and bluest seas in the world. It’s a cloudy day outside, with tropical sunshine interrupted by occasional showers. We’re just a few hundred kilometres north of the Equator.

But it’s whole different world inside the meeting room. We have no windows and are visually cut off from the scenery. And the air conditioning is too strong. Even the 50 or so people inside the room don’t emit enough body heat to counter the chill spilling out from the ceiling.

Paradise (resort) isn’t alone. Across tropical Asia, our public offices, hotels and shopping malls just love to freeze us out.

This habit has a particular irony at this meeting. Convened by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), it’s discussing how to stay cool without killing the planet.

To be precise, how air conditioning and refrigeration industries can continue their business – and keep cooling people and goods – without damaging the ozone layer or warming the planet.

It’s the semi-annual meeting of government officials from across Asia who help implement the Montreal Protocol to control and phase out several dozen industrial chemicals that damage the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere.

A nitpicker in Paradise? Photo by Darryl D'Monte

Adopted in 1987 and now ratified by 196 countries, it is the world’s most successful environmental treaty. It has reversed a catastrophic loss of ozone high up in the Earth’s atmosphere, and prevented tens of thousands of cases of skin cancer and cataract.

A landmark was reached at the end of 2009, when it succeeded in totally phasing out the production and use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) — chemicals that had helped the cooling industries for decades. Now, a bigger challenge remains: removing two other widely used gases known as HCFCs and HFCs.

Both were originally promoted as substitutes for CFCs in the early days of the Protocol. HCFCs are less ozone-damaging than CFCs, while HFCs are fully ozone-safe. However, both have a high global warming potential — up to 1,700 times that of Carbon dioxide — and therefore contribute to climate change.

It was only a few years ago that scientists and officials realized that there was little point in fixing one atmospheric problem if it aggravated another. So in 2007, the Montreal Protocol countries agreed to address the climate impacts of their work.

The Montreal Protocol now encourages the countries to promote the selection of alternatives to HCFCs that minimize environmental impacts, in particular impacts on climate change.

The air conditioning and refrigeration industries are being encouraged to switch from HCFC to substitutes ahead of the global phase-out deadline of 2030. Alternatives — including natural refrigerants such as ammonia, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons — are entering the market for many applications.

Parallel to this, consumers are being encouraged to opt for newer appliances that are both ozone-safe and climate friendly.

It takes time and effort for this message to spread and take hold. Many users — especially in the developing countries — only consider the purchase price of appliances and not necessarily the long-term energy savings or planetary benefits.

Events like the first Asian Ozone2Climate Roadshow, held in the Maldivian capital Malé from 8 to 12 May 2011, are pushing for this clarity and awareness. It’s still an uphill task: too many people have to be won over on too many appliances using a wide range of chemicals and processes.

And sitting here at my freezing corner of Paradise, I feel we should add another message: conserving energy includes a more rational and sensible use of air conditioning.

Perhaps we should promote and adopt the Japanese practice of Cool Biz.

Introduced by the Japanese Ministry of Environment in the summer of 2005, the idea behind Cool Biz was simple: ensure the thermostat in all air conditioners stayed fixed at 28 degrees Centigrade.

CoolBiz Logo

That’s not exactly a very cool temperature (and certainly no freezing), but not unbearable either.

The Cool Biz dress code advised office workers to starch collars “so they stand up and to wear trousers made from materials that breathe and absorb moisture”. They were encouraged to wear short-sleeved shirts without jackets or ties.

A Cool Koizumi: Leading from the front...

Then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi himself set the tone, wearing informal attire. But then, he was already known for his unorthodox style.

Clothes designers and retailers chipped in, with clothes offering greater comfort at higher temperatures.

Cool Biz changed the Japanese work environment – and fast. I remember walking into a meeting at a government office in Tokyo a few weeks after the idea had been introduced, and finding I was the most formally dressed.

The Japanese like to count things. When the first season of Cool Biz ended, they calculated the countrywide campaign to have saved at least 460,000 tons of Carbon dioxide emissions (by avoided electricity use). That’s about the same emissions from a million Japanese households for a month.

The following year, an even more aggressive Cool Biz campaign helped save an estimated 1.14 million tons of Carbon dioxide – or two and half times more than in the first year.

The idea also traveled beyond Japan. In 2006, the South Korean Ministry of Environment and the British Trade Union Congress both endorsed the idea.

This summer, the seventh since Cool Biz started, there is an added reason for the Japanese to conserve energy. As the Asahi Shimbun reported on 28 April 2011: “In what has been dubbed the ‘power-conserving biz’ campaign, many companies plan to conserve energy during the peak summer period in light of expected power shortages caused by the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.”

Meanwhile, the rest of us freeze-happy tropical Asians can evolve our own Cool Biz practices – we don’t need to wait for governments and industry to launch organized campaigns.

For a start, we – as consumers or patrons – can urge those who maintain public-access buildings to observe voluntary upper limits of cooling. Sensitive thermostats can automatically adjust air conditioner operations when temperatures rise above a pre-determined comfortable level.

It all depends on how many of us pause to think. Of course, we can also continue business as usual – and freeze ourselves today for a warmer tomorrow.

The sun sets in Paradise too - photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

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