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

Douglas Varchol: Secret of keeping ‘perfectly cool’ in a warming world…

Douglas Varchol (standing, extreme right) speaking at Ozone Media Roundable, 8 Oct 2009

Douglas Varchol (standing, extreme right) speaking at Ozone Media Roundable, 8 Oct 2009


With his wild hair and trendy suits, Douglas J Varchol can pass for a rock star. He is actually an accomplished independent film-maker, currently operating out of Bangkok, Thailand, covering a variety of science and environmental stories in Asia.

Last week, he participated in the Ozone Media Roundtable that TVE Asia Pacific and UNEP organised in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. After showing his latest documentary film on ozone, titled Earth Report: Perfectly Cool, which was first broadcast on BBC World News in September 2009, he talked about his experience in making the film.

Perfectly Cool is a 22 minute film looking at the challenges faced in trying to phase out a chemical called Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs for short), a coolant gas used in air conditioners across the developing world. As chemicals go, it’s a double hazard: this ozone depleting substance also contributes to climate change by acting as a greenhouse gas.

But non-specialist viewers watch broadcast television for good stories, not science lessons. The challenge for journalists and film makers is to ‘sugarcoat’ the technicalities by wrapping it up in human interest stories. Douglas recalled how he did this: combining imagination, hard work and luck.

First, here’s the official synopsis of the film which sums up the story:
Air conditioners are damaging the environment. One widely used coolant gas, HCFC, damages the ozone layer. With booming sales of domestic ACs around the world, the problem has grown in recent years, despite vigorous international efforts to reduce ozone depleting chemicals. Under the international agreement known as the Montreal Protocol, HCFC will be phased out worldwide by 2030. An ozone-friendly replacement gas – HFC – is now used in Europe, but that gas is a potent greenhouse gas — which means it contributes to global warming. However, an answer may be at hand. Earth Report travels to China, centre of the global AC industry, to investigate the cost of cool and meets the industry representatives working on a solution – and Sa DingDing, a musician with extreme views on air conditioners.

Watch the first 4 mins of Earth Report – Perfectly Cool

Humanising science stories is hard enough, and when the subject is something people can’t see or feel, it becomes harder. As I wrote a few days ago, the Ozone Layer – located between 10 and 50 kilometres above the Earth, and invisible to the naked eye – is not something tangible like cuddly animals or endangered plants. Moving ordinary people to care for something they can’t see or touch is tough, even if all life on Earth depends critically on it (the Ozone Layer absorbs most of the Sun’s harmful ultra-violet days).

Douglas had his work cut out for him. Throw into this mix the fact that the editorially independent film was being made pooling funds from six development agencies – each with their own agenda – and that the story was filmed in China where filming permission still involve a lot of paperwork, it’s a small miracle Perfectly Cool was completed. And as we saw, Douglas tells a good story without compromising accuracy or balance.

So did he keep perfectly cool during the making of this film, I asked. He revealed that there were moments of panic and despair, although in the end everything fell into place. While the editors at BBC World were satisfied with the film, some technical specialists consulted for the script had felt it was over-simplified.

Ah, I do know that feeling! When I made a film on ozone in 2006 (Return of the Ozone Layer: Are We There Yet?) it took us 18 months to finish, and went through endless revisions. The UN system seems to just love making films by committee…

With his film, Douglas faced additional hurdles. For example, he takes us inside the Gree company‘s factory producing air conditioners. In 2004, Gree became the largest AC manufacturer in the world, but they had never before allowed television cameras inside their plant. That took lots of time and effort to set up.

Sometimes, things not going according to plans actually helps. When on location, Douglas serendipitously came across elements that were not in the original story treatment but enhanced the human interest: for example, a modern day wedding where the new couple gifted reusable chop sticks to all their guests. That was good environmental conduct – but then they headed off to choose air conditioners for their new apartment…

Douglas Varchol (extreme right) makes a point during Ozone Media Roundtable

Douglas Varchol (extreme right) makes a point during Ozone Media Roundtable

Douglas paid a tribute to his Chinese researcher Lihong Shi and crew, without whose local knowledge and contacts he couldn’t have made the film.

In the end, Douglas pulls it off. Despite its seemingly esoteric and complex subject, Perfectly Cool is perfectly watchable — and not just for science buffs like myself.

Douglas, who once worked with Wired Science making science programmes for American PBS, said he set out to make a film on HCFCs that even his mom (a high school teacher) could understand. I can’t speak for her, but those of us who watched it in Chiang Mai were enthralled.

Why don’t the greenhouse gases escape through the Ozone Hole?

Can we blame him for the confusion?

Can we blame him for the confusion?

Don’t laugh. The perception of the TV viewer in this cartoon (which first appeared a couple of years ago in the Akron Beacon Journal in Ohio, United States) is more common that you’d think. In recent years, as climate change rose up in the media’s news agenda and the public’s list of concerns, I have met a number of people – from across educational and cultural spectra – who harbour similar confusion about the two issues.

I showed this cartoon, and referred to the wide-spread confusion, in my opening remarks to the Ozone Media Roundtable, an event to engage Asian media professionals on the nexus between ozone depletion and climate change. The meeting, held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on 8 – 9 October 2009, was organised jointly by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and TVE Asia Pacific for invited senior journalists and broadcasters from the Asia Pacific region.

Ozone layer depletion and climate change are linked in a number of ways, but ozone depletion is not a direct or major cause of climate change.

In fact, the relationship between ozone and climate is both complex and nuanced, which has prompted some experts to call it a ‘Tango in the Atmosphere’. Ozone affects climate, and climate affects ozone. The authoritative UNEP GRID Arendal website says: “Ozone depletion and climate change are two distinct problems but as they both modify global cycles, they cannot be totally separated. There are still many uncertainties concerning the relations between the two processes.”

Read more about this at the Ozone Hole website.

Since the late 1980s, Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer has successfully phased-out 97 per cent of 100 chemicals that damage the protective shield that filters out harmful ultra violet rays to the Earth.

In recent years, research has outlined that global efforts to protect the ozone layer has also delivered climate benefits as many of the chemicals that damage the ozone layer – such as chloroflurocarbons or CFCs – also cause global warming.

In 2007 a scientific paper calculated the climate mitigation benefits of the ozone treaty as totalling an equivalent of 135 billion tonnes of C02 since 1990 or a delay in global warming of seven to 12 years. That same year countries meeting in Canada, under the Montreal Protocol, agreed to an accelerated freeze and phase-out of Hydrochloroflurocarbons (HCFCs)—chemicals designed to replace the old, more ozone-damaging CFCs – in the main for the climate benefits.