Why Hongkongers can’t live without air-conditioning

October 24, 2015 08:03
Temperature inside the high-end Pacific Place mall in Admiralty is always kept at freezing levels even during winter. Photo: HKEJ

Summers in Hong Kong are long and scorching, but look out, you may get frostbite in the city.

Any long-time resident can tell you the secrets to surviving the hot months: always get yourself a scarf or “indoor jacket” regardless of the outdoor temperature.

We live in a man-made “ice age” though the daytime temperature can still rise well beyond 30°C (86 degrees Fahrenheit) in October.

Hong Kong’s ubiquitous air-conditioning has become a part of its lifestyle. Wherever you go -- malls, theaters, offices, restaurants, libraries or lecture halls -- frigid air from air-conditioning outlets will surely bring out your goose pimples.

So it’s no joke that there exist two Hong Kongs: a natural one with humid, monsoon-influenced subtropical climate and another thermally conditioned one with indoor temperature that never exceeds 25°C, and usually, the boundary between the two worlds is no more than a glass door.

Room temperature in a supermarket at Festival Walk in Kowloon Tong was just 12°C while the temperature inside the General Post Office in Central was around 19°C all year round, according to Green Peace.

EJ Insight reporters also found that the AC system at the University of Hong Kong’s Centennial Campus, a large, inter-connected teaching and research complex, runs almost 24 hours a day even when lecture halls are closed late at night.

Shivering students have to seal air-conditioning ducts with paper; classrooms have no individual AC controls as the entire premises have a centralized building management system.

For the record, when the project was completed, HKU boasted that the new campus was awarded the highest performance Platinum certification under the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) scheme.

There’s no exaggeration that Hong Kong itself is now a giant refrigerator. Its addiction to unrelenting air-conditioning is so commonplace that nobody thinks it’s an issue.

The Hong Kong government has gazetted a detailed energy saving charter on indoor temperature, which recommends that room temperatures be maintained between 23°C and 26°C in summer and between 20°C and 24°C in winter. Yet the fact is that even many of the government offices and municipal service complexes have failed to follow these guidelines.

The result is that air-conditioning has become the single largest electricity guzzler: it takes a third of the city’s annual overall power consumption with peaks reaching 60 percent from June to September, environment minister Wong Kam-sing said at this year’s Earth Hour event.

Hong Hong’s per capita electricity consumption is among the highest in Asia and almost two times the average level in the developed world.

“The city is perhaps the worst example of how a modern metropolis should use its energy and it takes a tree three months to absorb the greenhouse gas a household AC unit emits in eight hours of continuous use,” said a member of Friends of the Earth during a recent seminar.

Still, in Hong Kong, staying cool is quite important.

In a densely populated city where cramped living conditions are a fact of life, keeping places cool can compensate for the usual lack of space. Lower temperature also soothes away stress and anxiety, especially when you are in a crowd.

A colleague says a powerful air-conditioner helps keep him awake in the office. Also, many shoebox homes in the city will turn into virtual furnaces if their air-conditioning units are shut down.

“You can put on a coat if you feel cold in a room with AC, but there’s nothing you can do if you are under Hong Kong’s baking sun, so I’d rather prefer sneezing inside a chilly mall,” said a local resident.

Air-conditioning is an indispensable part of the shopping experience. Otherwise, high-end malls won’t be able to create that chic atmosphere that seems to encourage shoppers to gladly open their wallets.

Ifc mall, Pacific Place, The Landmark and Times Square are among the most freezing shopping destinations in the city.

So it appears that AC is the kind of necessary evil that people in the city can't live without.

One advice for the government is to unify power tariff regimes for household and commercial users, as bills of the latter are calculated on a regressive basis, resulting in residential consumers subsidizing commercial users, especially big malls.

For perspective, Harbour City has one of Hong Kong’s largest air-conditioned floor areas under one ceiling, and its annual electricity consumption, mostly used to power its monster AC systems, is equivalent to that of all families in Wan Chai and Causeway Bay, but it only paid HK$100 million in tariff in 2013.

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Air outlets inside a train car. Hong Kong's public transport systems are also criticized for excessive air-conditioning. Photo: Internet
A poster for this year's No Aircon Night campaign held in September. Photo: Green Sense

EJ Insight writer