Keeping our cool

While I was travelling around New Zealand during my exchange programme last semester, I met this British who visited Singapore for a few days before coming to New Zealand. (He loved it here) One of the first things he said to me was, “Singapore is so amazing. I mean, you guys are SO good with your air conditioning. I find it amusing that I’m freezing while waiting at the airport or in your shopping centres.” (P.S. don’t worry, there were a lot of other [better] things he found amazing in Singapore)

What he said really got me thinking. Is it necessary for our air-conditioning to be so cold? Why do we have to wear jackets in Singapore, a hot and wet tropical country? Isn’t that a bit ironic?

I do understand the pain and torture of having to bear with the 30degrees Celsius heat in Singapore but I don’t see why I have to bring a jacket into lecture theatres, or why I have to bring a jacket to the cinema, or even to shopping centres. Using jackets in Singapore is really a sign of how much us humans are changing the (micro) climate of Singapore.

With urbanisation comes the Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect (as discussed in Lecture 3) and this makes us even more reliant on air-conditioning to cool ourselves down. However, air-conditioning is a source of anthropogenic heat which contributes to UHI. So, isn’t it contradicting that we rely on air-conditioning to feel cool from UHI but air-conditioning contributes to UHI?

Yes, there are various methods to reduce the effects of UHI and they are mainly to increase green cover, use building materials with desirable thermal properties, and to reduce anthropogenic heat. However, reducing anthropogenic heat largely depends on the responsibility of individuals and their consumption of heat-emitting products such as cars and air-conditioning.

How many of you are guilty of switching on the air-conditioning the moment you reach home or the moment you feel all warm and sweaty just by sitting at home? Or do you sleep with the air-conditioning switched on throughout the night? Such habits can be changed as long as you have the mindset to make a difference. While it can be extreme to ask people to completely eliminate their air-conditioning usage, it is possible to make small steps to work towards the ultimate goal of reducing reliance on air-conditioning. For instance, instead of leaving the air-conditioning switched on throughout the night, set it on a timer for 2-3hours when you go to sleep and use a fan instead. This way, the fan ventilates the cold air around in your room, allowing you to sleep in a cool room.

Apart from individuals, companies, too, can help to reduce anthropogenic heat emissions. Japan has a Cool Biz Campaign which is a summer-long campaign to reduce energy consumption (mainly through reducing air-conditioning usage). This campaign was started in 2011 in light of the Fukushima nuclear disaster that led to power shortages. While the driving force behind this campaign was power shortage and not heat emissions, Singapore, too, should adopt such a practice. In this campaign, companies have to set their thermostat to 28 degrees Celsius and office workers are allowed to dress lightly and casually to their workplace, instead of turning up in their usual suit and tie. I personally feel that Singapore should adopt this campaign because who doesn’t want to wear casual clothes to work? it is a good way to reduce a large amount of air-conditioning usage given the large number of companies present in Singapore. Furthermore, it would be easier to adopt this campaign in Singapore as compared to Japan as our country’s culture is not as strict on work attire in offices.

Even the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York has implemented a campaign modelled after Japan’s Cool Biz Campaign in 2008. Air-conditioning temperatures would be increased to 25 degrees Celsius and 23.9 degrees Celsius in the Secretariat building and conference rooms respectively. Furthermore, the UN employees are encouraged to dress casually and “heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems are shut down during weekends”.

Additionally, Hong Kong launched the Energy Saving Charter on Indoor Temperature in 2012 in which buildings have to maintain indoor premises between 24 and 26 degrees Celsius. While its main goal is to reduce electricity consumption, increasing air-conditioning temperatures in buildings would also help to reduce heat emissions.

As such, I feel that Singaporeans and companies in Singapore have a lot more to work towards in terms of reducing heat emitted from air-conditioning. Schools, too, have a role to play in reducing heat emitted from air-conditioning. Sure, it would be tough for people to be willing to compromise on their comfort level but if you look at the bigger picture, the positive feedback from air-conditioning usage only just contributes toward the UHI effect we experience here. Thus, I encourage everyone to increase their air-conditioning temperature setting, reduce their use of air-conditioning, or stop using it completely (at home).