Giving up a luxury can ease global warming

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2017/10/12 21:43:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

When I went to Beijing for a vacation at the end of August, it was steamy hot. I am not even talking about an Indian summer, or in Chinese, the Autumn tiger - the unusual hot weather when the summer is just officially over. It was hot outdoors for sure, but it felt even more so indoors. Air conditioning, which you thought you could rely on, failed the test almost everywhere. From restaurants to shopping malls to even Beijing Capital International Airport, the air-conditioners were certainly all on, but they seemed to be just churning out air at room temperature.

I had not been back to China in the summer for many years, and I didn't remember what it normally felt like in an air-conditioned room there. I looked at other Chinese around me, and they all seemed at ease. So there was nothing wrong with the air-conditioning, I told myself, it was me. I must have become so Americanized throughout the 17 years I have spent in the US that my body is no longer tolerant of the normal level of heat that the Chinese, who are known for their obsession with consuming hot food and hot water, are comfortable in.

But soon I learned that may not be the full story. Friends told me the air-conditioner temperature was set higher than normal to "save energy and protect the environment."

A bit of research of my own led to the following assessment: The current default temperature of air-conditioners in most public places in China is 26 degrees Celsius (78.8 degrees Fahrenheit). But that was only set five years ago when the Chinese government called for public and private entities to set their air-conditioner temperatures higher in the summer and lower in the winter to reduce their carbon footprints. It was not mandatory, but soon caught up as a trend.

This summer, alarmed by the early sign of an energy consumption spike in an unusually hot summer, Beijing's municipal government reiterated the call and asked people to raise their air-conditioner temperature by a degree. According to local Chinese media outlets, most private entities answered the call and most customers at shopping malls and restaurants said they didn't mind.  

This happened at the time the US government dubbed global warming "fake news." It has just withdrawn from the Paris climate accord. And it is now ready to repeal the Clean Power Plan that was only unveiled two years ago, which set to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power by 32 percent by 2030. Talk about parallel universes!

US President Donald Trump, who has called global warming a "hoax" and a "tax," takes much blame for all this. But Trump is certainly not the only person responsible for America's irresponsible behavior on the issue. As a friend in China asked me when we talked about the air-conditioner temperature and global warming, "How many people in America would like to sacrifice their individual comfort for the globe?"

It's hard for me to answer the question. In the 17 years I've been living in New York, a deeply Democrat-voting city that has vowed to reduce its carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, the air-conditioner temperatures have only been hiked to save energy a handful of times. That occurred only when power demand skyrocketed during heat waves to make authorities think that the whole system might crash. And even then, it only happened within the boundary of City Hall.

Until a local law in 2008 required stores of 4,000 square feet or larger to keep their doors shut while the air-conditioner is on, it was a ubiquitous practice for stores to lure sweaty pedestrians inside by blowing delicious cool air at them through wide open doors. Smart marketing but a massive waste of resources. Only in 2015 was the law expanded to include stores of all sizes. Though the new law included windows, French doors of restaurants were exempted by an amendment earlier this year.

Then there is the temperature setting of the air-conditioning in the US. Whether in restaurants, theaters or on subway trains, it is often so freezing that many people carry a jacket or cardigan in the middle of the summer.

And not to mention the office buildings and stores that keep their lights on and air-conditioners letting out blasts of air after they have closed for the night. 

To be sure, the Chinese sacrifice "for the globe" has unique foundations. For one, the traditional Chinese culture reveres austerity. Store owners won't hesitate when they can reduce costs with an excuse that puts them on high moral ground.

China also has a much more urgent need to curb air pollution, a goal that ordinary people can easily associate with. And, of course, the political system means it is easier to have ordinary people often answer the government's demands.

No matter what political system one is under and what calls the government makes, people can do a lot themselves, as long as they'd like to, for example, at home and in the office, giving up a degree or two of their comfort. That's the same in China and in the US.

The author is a New York-based journalist.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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