Losing our cool

Gerhard Hope looks at how air-con has shaped life in the Middle East

Gerhard Hope.
Gerhard Hope.

When I first arrived in Dubai, I thought air-conditioned bus shelters were quite an affectation. During the height of summer, however, these are oases in the urban environment, especially if you walk around outside and need a handy spot to cool down.

It is clear that air-con has not only made life possible in this hot and dusty part of the world, but has allowed it to flourish as well. Our dependency on air-con is highlighted by the fact that it accounts for a staggering 70% of our total energy consumption. This means our per-capita energy consumption is even greater than the energy-guzzling US.

Partly to blame is the UAE tendency to keep things cool to the point of freezing, with the indoor temperature in hotels, shopping malls and cinemas hovering around the 22˚C mark, while the accepted norm for indoor comfort is about 24˚C. Air-con is also so pervasive it is left on day and night, often throughout the cooler winter periods as well.

Simply raising the set point temperature in the UAE, and switching air-con off when it is not needed will save millions of dirhams. So why don’t we do this? Well, it is because ‘keeping cool’ seems to have become part and parcel of the region’s values, which shows how effortlessly we embrace the comforts of technology.

“Our dependence on inherently fragile technology has somehow morphed into a symbol of strength, something that separates us from people who work hard and enjoy life without air-con in warmer climates around the world,” writes Stan Cox in a fascinating new book, Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World.

Cathy Gulli comments: “Forty years from now, researchers predict the earth will experience 17% to 23% more hot weather annually – and taking population growth into account, demand for cooling systems will rise by 65% to 72%.” This is good news for chiller manufacturers, but bad news for the environment.

Cox argues that while air-con has rendered uninhabitable areas habitable and productive, we have become dangerously dependent on air-con – to the extent where it has created a preference for an artificial environment. We are no longer used to the outdoors.

“Air conditioners have all but displaced the need for shady trees to cool us down. Whereas homes used to feature big awnings and porches, and many windows for cross-drafts, now they are built around air-conditioners – and windows are sealed shut,” says Gulli. Inadequate ventilation is linked to asthma and allergies. The suspected culprits include volatile organic compounds (VOCs), moulds and allergens in floor dust, as well as bacteria, which air-conditioners harness and disperse.

What is the upshot of all this? Bradford Plumer says that, “in the face of unsustainable energy trends, it is quite possible that we will have to learn to rely less on artificial temperature control.” In the UAE, Abu Dhabi is mulling its first electricity-price increase in 15 years, as part of a demand-side management strategy to curb consumption and reduce the need to build power stations. More expensive electricity means people will think twice about leaving the air-con on all the time.

Abu Dhabi’s top tier electricity rate of 15 fils per kilowatt-hour is one of the lowest in the world. In the US it is 41 fils, while in Denmark it is AED1.32. Interestingly, the Abu Dhabi government estimates that even without increasing the cost of electricity, simple energy management could cut consumption growth by 2,532 MW by 2020, almost equivalent to the output of two large natural gas-fired power stations.

As Cox points out, “many of the key jobs that create the material foundation of the economy are performed either outdoors or indoors without climate control” – you just have look at the construction industry here and the thousands of workers who have toiled relentlessly to build our air-con bubble in the middle of the desert.

Gerhard Hope is editor of MEP Middle East.

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