Debate: can we turn off the air conditioning this summer?

If Chinese citizens turned their cooling off three minutes early, carbon emissions could be radically reduced. Zhang Haidi, recalling the beauty of floral window boxes, says it’s a small sacrifice.

The narrow streets of Bamberg, a charming old town in the German state of Bavaria, are hard to forget. I am particularly fond of the windows, many of which are decorated with window boxes of flowers displaying a profusion of colours. 

And then I think of Jinan, the eastern Chinese city where I lived for many years. The number of cars in Chinese cities has rocketed in recent years, with roads becoming ever more congested. The buildings alongside those roads have become taller and more numerous – and instead of window boxes full of flowers, the only decoration on the outside of Chinese buildings tends to be air-conditioning units.

As summer approaches, the news media carry reports of air-conditioning manufacturers’ sales promotions, with hundreds of new systems being sold in a single day, thousands in a single month. But there’s no mention of the ozone-depleting substances produced by some refrigerant gases, or how much power these appliances will consume and the associated emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2). In summertime business meetings, the air conditioning often is on at full blast, leaving attendees shivering. Sometimes a window is even left open to let some cold air out.

Summer in Bamberg can also be scorching, but no homes have air conditioning, and very few shops or buses do either. I used to wonder how they survived the summer. A friend told me that even though the temperature can reach 42º Celsius (about 107º Fahrenheit), the locals have their ways of coping with the heat: take a walk by the river; sit under the trees; use an electric fan; have a cold drink – but do not install air conditioning. They know that air conditioning produces greenhouse gases and, to protect the environment, emission of those gases needs to be reduced.

I was impressed. To protect the environment, the people of Bamberg were willing to make a sacrifice. But how many people are able to put this into practice?

Humanity has always struggled with the weather. It is one of the processes that helped us evolve into strong and intelligent creatures. But our modern civilisation sees us rely more and more on the products of industry, and our resilience is decreasing. Some feel that a simple electric fan is not enough to keep them cool in summer and that they need air conditioning, even while they sleep. Some children have become part of an “air-conditioned generation”: they don’t get hot in summer or cold in winter, and are unable to cope with either wind or sun.

My friend in Bamberg said that the natural environment is essential for humanity’s continued survival. Improved quality of life depends on a good natural environment — green hills and clear water, wildlife and flowers. Not only do these leave us happy and carefree, they also help to regulate the temperature.

China's Ministry of Science and Technology has published a handbook on ways the public can reduce energy use and emissions. One way is to turn off your air conditioning three minutes before you leave the house, rather than as you walk out the door. At a conservative estimate, one person doing this would save five kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity a year and reduce CO2 emissions by 4.8 kilogrammes. If all the users of China's 150 million air-conditioning units did the same, 750 million kWh of electricity could be saved annually, with CO2 emissions reduced by 720,000 tonnes.

Could you do without air conditioning in summer, or at least reduce its use? Would you rather see flower boxes or humming machines on the window sills of buildings?

Let us know on the forum what you think.





Zhang Haidi is a well-known writer and translator in China. Paralysed from the waist down since the age of five, she is self-taught and has become an influential figure in China.