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Sustainable Consumption Institute

How to make cooling measures cooler?

The early summer publication of the Adaptation Sub-Committee (ASC) Progress Report 2014 Managing Climate Risks to Well-Being and the Economy seems to have had a limited impact on the public’s attitude regarding the growing risk of heatwaves in the UK.

Since the 2003 European-wide heatwave, the UK government has been making efforts to arouse public awareness of the problem, for instance, by publishing Heatwave Plans (the latest plan was published in May 2014) and conducting a series of reviews. The ASC report recommends that more strenuous efforts should be made to prepare the UK for higher mean and maximum temperatures. Due to the relatively mild summer so far, however, it is doubtful that the warning has been taken to heart by most of the UK population.

Climate change has at least doubled the risk of high summer temperatures, matching or exceeding those of 2003. This is compounded by current building practices and the aging UK population. Purpose-built or top floor flats and terraced houses have been identified as having the highest risk of overheating. If you are living in a flat built after the 1990s, a pre-1919 uninsulated loft conversion or a 1960s building, this is something to be wary of in future summers. According to the report, many UK hospitals and care homes, which consist of groups of people with the highest risk of heat-related health problems, are not built for protecting their residents from a sudden rise in summer temperatures.

Compared to deaths from cold weather, which currently stands around 41,000 annually, heat related mortality is approximately 2,000. While cold weather mortality is predicted to slightly decline, the number of people who die from heatwaves is expected to rise to 7,000 by the 2050s. The figure of 7,000 premature deaths – taken as a conservative projection accounting only for the mortality caused by the rise in mean temperatures – might not seem particularly significant, but heat related deaths are not the only problem. An empirical study, mentioned in the same report, suggests that, even during a cool summer, the bedrooms of 4.8 million UK homes may exceed 26°C for more than 1% of night time hours. Due to these high temperatures in our bedrooms, many of us may experience trouble going to sleep.

Why don’t we simply turn on our air-conditioning, or if you don’t have one, install an air-conditioning unit? The report argues that air-conditioning (or air-con) is a problematic solution for making the UK heatwave resistant. Currently, the proportion of UK home with air-conditioning is still quite low. Air-conditioning systems are expensive and produce waste heat that brings up the temperature of the surrounding environment. This, in some cases, may lead to the urban heat island effect. Additionally, an extensive use of air-conditioning leads to higher electricity bills and increased greenhouse gas emissions, the latter of which contributes to global warming.

In countries like the USA, air-con is a significant factor that aggravates the electricity peak load problem. As shown by historians like David Nye and Gail Cooper, the domestic installation of air- conditioning rapidly progressed in the 1960s in America, making the technology less of a luxury and more of a necessity. With the popularity of air-con at home and in the workplace, annual electricity peak consumption has shifted from winter to summer. This shift is also witnessed in countries such as Japan, starting around the 1970s. Now the problem is getting worse. Countries that formerly could not afford similar levels of energy consumption are catching up with their desire to enjoy the ‘coolth’ just as much as they are keen to buy brand-name products, private cars and enjoy international air travel. As the huge populations in India, Brazil and China­ increase their use of air-conditioning systems, its negative implications on the energy supply and the earth’s ozone layer becomes obvious. Most of these new entrants to cool comfort generally live with higher average temperatures than the UK. A further expansion of air-con use by the UK population would jeopardize the nation’s credible commitment to energy conservation and greenhouse gas emissions.

It would not be wise or realistic to vilify air-conditioning, though the UK probably needs to keep air-con off of its priority list as a heatwave solution. One thing that hinders us from doing so is that air-con has become, in some quarters, an essential part of the built-environment, such as in offices, restaurants, hotels and shops, though to a lesser extent than in some other countries. Without being aware, we no longer think of space cooling as an 'assistive' technology but as a fundamental part of the human environment.

Apart from air-con, what are our options? One idea, advocated by people like Stan Cox, the author of Losing Our Cool, is 'people cooling' as opposed to central or room air-conditioning. As far as human oriented—as opposed to machine-oriented—working space and domestic settings are concerned, cooling technology’s main purpose is to provide us with comfort. We can derive comfort from other means besides lowering the temperature and humidity of an entire room or building. For example, the electric fan consumes less energy and is a more environmentally friendly option. It does not lower the room temperature, but it helps us to lower our body temperature and, in many cases, gives us a sense of comfort. This relatively cheap and slightly old-fashioned device is readily available and most of us already have one. The question is whether we are using it effectively. One advantage of the electric fan is that it can co-exist with other technologies and even with natural coolness. In Japan, where reducing summer peak electricity consumption is paramount, especially since 2011, electric power companies and the Ministry of Environment have been trying to persuade people to set their thermostat control at a slightly higher temperature (28 degrees Celsius is recommended). People are advised to use an electric fan to mitigate the loss of comfort. This usually turns out to be cheaper in terms of one’s electricity bill, while providing a similar degree of comfort (in offices, the use of electric fans needs to be moderated to avoid business papers flying around).

In their pioneering stage, both the electric fan and air-conditioner were introduced chiefly to improve working conditions and quality control in the mining and manufacturing industries by providing artificial ventilation and de-humidification—providing a comfortable work environment to employees was a secondary benefit. In the USA, ventilation and air circulation were the chief use of the electric fan. Space cooling was gradually taken over by the air-conditioner around the 1960s, while in Japan, smaller ‘table top’ or ‘living room’ electric fans remained popular until later periods, especially in domestic settings. The development of cooling technology is characterised by the assistive cooling technology of the electric fan gradually being replaced by environmental control from air-con. Air-con came to dictate building design and spatial arrangement because it works most efficiently in insulated spaces. Opening the windows to let in the natural breeze leads to energy waste, so many modern high-rise buildings have fixed windows to prevent people from opening them.

There is a recurring discussion about the link between temperature and productivity that generally points to the advantage of a relatively cold climate, as it seems to improve human productivity. This applies to office temperatures and so some argue that having a well-cooled office makes sense. But, if air-con is meant for improving work efficiency, why don't we turn it off during our breaks? There is also the perennial problem that the office is too cool for some, and not sufficiently cool for others. Questioning our established ideas and practices regarding the use of air-con leads us to think more carefully about our well-being, rather than concentrating on productivity.

When human well-being is our chief concern, we might find it uncomfortable to treat office workers as though they are a bunch of computer chips (which incidentally work better at low temperatures). Considering what cool comfort is meant for is an important step forward, but it is likely still not enough to change our behaviour. As long as we keep thinking about the issue of cool comfort as something that can be solved in one stroke, with one single technology, we are a long way away from achieving the quality of life and well-being that we want. Human well-being is about much more than the combination of temperatures and humidity. This is why we need to re-think the advantages of older technologies like the electric fan, though this is not to say that we all need to run to the shop and buy additional electric fans.

The point is to maximise the benefit of ‘assistive’ technologies (i.e. they can co-exist with other technologies and contrivances). This is something that we tend to forget when we overly depend on a centrally controlled device. The ASC report advocates passive cooling measures such as shutting curtains, painting roofs white, ensuring good ventilation, applying tinted window film and reducing heat gains from pipes and appliances. To this list, we also might add increasing our numbers of indoor plants and using bamboo shades, wicker chairs, paper fans and various other things. Japan, which initiated the 2005 coolbiz movement, is also a country where people have developed the cultural sensitivity of hearing coolness in the sound of wind-bells. Each of these, by itself, is not a definitive solution to future heatwaves, but they can be combined to produce a cumulative effect on our cool comfort.

The generally cold climate of the UK means that a relatively modest effort can succeed in lowering the indoor temperature and can sufficiently improve our summertime living conditions. The ASC report seems to be pointing in the right direction by telling us so, but their ‘passive’ cooling measures sound slightly too passive. Human well-being may be achieved through a combination of various factors. To improve comfort, combining a number of assistive technologies is a natural solution. One might wonder why we need to bother picking, choosing and combining to achieve cool comfort, but isn’t that how we make our houses nice places to live? In our everyday life, we select furniture, carpets, lamp shades, wallpaper, dining tables, pictures on our desk and a hundred and one other things to make ourselves comfortable at home. If we go about bringing in cool comfort into our living space with that attitude, passive measures begin to look more fun and exciting. At any rate, if the UK government really wants to boost public awareness on the issue of heatwave risks, it needs marketing acumen to show how cooling measures can improve our daily lives rather than just painting a dismal picture of a heating-up Britain.