In efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change, the common man too plays a huge role.
What is the major shift in the market produces that we can buy today compared to a decade ago?
When we buy LED bulbs, energy star-marked electrical fittings, packaging that suggests it be recycled or pick up paints with low VOC (volatile organic compounds), we may not bother to think what made them available today. The story behind them is the growing awareness and global action about environment.
In the new millennium, there have been a plethora of research, reports and meetings across the world, both at global and local levels. Even small towns and colleges in India today host discussions on the environmental crisis, with the participants releasing press statements. All these have been made possible, indirectly, by the deluge of information and the annual gathering of world leaders happening since then.
It all started in 1995 at Berlin when the first UN Climate Change Conference (UNFCC) was held, being held annually since then. Popularly named as COP (Conference of Parties, nations who are a party to the protocols), the last one held in 2016 at Marrakesh was the 22nd in line.
These meetings are attended by heads of nations or the seniormost officials dealing with climate change issues to discuss progress in reduction in greenhouse gases by the rich nations under the Kyoto Protocol. This protocol was among the major international resolutions until then, adopted in 1997 by 192 nations as the signatory parties placing common but differentiated responsibilities on each nation to fight global warming – mainly placing obligations on developed nations since they are more responsible than others in causing higher levels of greenhouse gases.
COP 17 held at Durban, South Africa, marked another milestone in binding all nations to limit carbon emissions by 2015 and create a Green Climate Fund of $100 billion per year to distribute to poor nations. Accordingly, each nation committed to specific reductions in emissions, which were ratified by the Paris Agreement signed in 2015 by 195 UNFCCC members, which sets 2020 as the year to start major contributions towards adaptation, mitigation and financing. Each signatory develops programmes, action plans, funds and executes to control global warming.
COP has become an annual ritual at exotic places, sometimes failing like at The Hague (2000) or often producing no major results like at Nairobi (2006) or Warsaw (2013). We can take pride in the COP New Delhi (2002), though it too was not a big success. In between, some of them like those held at Copenhagen (2009), Cancun (2010) or Doha (2012) arrive at far reaching conclusions, keeping the hopes alive.
However recently, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that his country is quitting the Paris Agreement, to shock the world which has been struggling to arrive at consensus towards climate action. It reminded one of the days when the then U.S. President George Bush had rejected the Kyoto Protocol in 2001.
We need to realise that leaders and Presidents matter in mitigating climate change, but people like us matter even more.
Interactions among nations for preserving the environment have been going on for quite some time. Concrete action is awaited.
Many of us reading this essay might have stayed past the midnight of December 31, 1999, to sing, dance and welcome the new millennium, waking up to January 1, 2000. We all considered us to be among the lucky few witnesses to the march of civilisation, occurring once in a thousand years.
Now what if we ask, will there be humans to dance on December 31, 2999, and welcome January 1, 3000? It is not a complex question, but a frightening question considering the devastating march of humans on the Earth. May be this rapidly increasing fear is what is catapulting us to greater ideas and actions since 1999.
In the year 2000, 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDG) were set out by the United Nations to be accomplished by 2015, ratified by the largest ever congregation of world leaders in human history.
Though it focused more on societal than environmental issues, it suggested that the humankind could come together, as was later proved by the World Summit of 2005.
A little before it, in 2002, the Earth Summit at Johannesburg placed sustainable development as an overarching concern, further emphasised upon at the Earth Summit of 2012, also called as Rio+20. Here, 192 nation heads, chief executives of private sector companies and innumerable NGOs converged for 10 days to work out the modalities of sustainable development. The major issue that emerged was about reconciling economic and environmental issues, which most often are at loggerheads.
Among the results of these initiatives, an important one is Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) with 169 targets. These extended the MDGs beyond 2015 and expanded the inter-governmental agreements.
With the word ‘sustainability’ appearing 13 times in this list, besides climate change, equitable quality, inclusiveness, consumption, production patterns, energy, inequality among nations, global partnership, economic growth and such others, the SDGs must be the most ambitious set of visions ever envisioned by humankind.
The multiple meetings being held from 1972 onwards have reduced as decades advanced and the UN summits paved the path for global leaders to be on the same platform.
The new millennium also saw scores of research, books and seminars, converting the sceptics into believers of climate change.
Today we do not have frequent global events, but the interactions after 2000 have led to agreements by all to restore ecological balance, mainly during the Conference of Parties (CoP), which started in 1997 and has been held every year without fail. Together with the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) reports, our environmental awareness has advanced far and deep.
How many of these goals have been achieved or are they really achievable at all, should not be the debate today, for the very coming together of nations on a single stage, nations that have been warring a few decades ago, itself is a human achievement.
Now the challenge is to convert this achievement into action and let awareness lead to execution of ideas.
We demolish old buildings even when they are in good condition for the sake of bigger and better structures. But is this justified?
What’s the talk of the town in the lighting sector now? It is replacing old bulbs with LED fixtures in existing buildings. Thanks to government schemes, millions of tube lights, CFLs and incandescent bulbs have been replaced, to save electricity, which is a laudable project.
So too, we have been replacing millions of cell phones, laptops, television sets, washing machines, air conditioners and other gadgets to keep pace with technological upgradation. What about buying a new vehicle every five years? Not a bad idea because maintenance costs go up after few years of driving and anyway there are buyers for used cars. Exchange offers are very attractive, and we feel good about the increased speed, storage and comforts.
Contrastingly, if we think of the past, how often the tube light got changed; house landline phone replaced; new wall clock bought; ceiling fan disposed or any such other household item was exchanged, we realise a major shift in our lifestyle – a lifestyle which embraces products in the name of advantages. Do we compare electricity saved with embodied energy to nature and monetary cost to individual to check if the replacement was judicious?
Thoughtless replacement is not ecologically advantageous on all occasions. We rarely bother about where the disposed item goes and whether it gets responsibly recycled without leftover waste.
Even if we care, what about the additional production we are supporting by buying a new product? What about the resources it is consuming, waste it generates, fossil fuel for transportation and marketing energy?
The tragedy is that we are replacing products while they are still functional with many more years of working life left; unlike in the past when the new entered only when the old became dysfunctional and exited.
Majority of us use fairly recent mobile phones today, which could be the third or sixth one since we purchased our first mobile, say a decade ago. It is a financial burden, but we justify it saying we can afford the cost. The old ones could perform, but we justify claiming the need for updating.
Old buildings are still good, but we demolish them seeking a bigger and better building. But can we justify the ecological cost of replacing, a burden not directly on us, but on the Earth? Can the money we have that buys a new phone solve the problem of the disposed old one? With our own body, do we try to extend our working life as we age or simply stop functioning, letting the new and young take over?
Replacing is required, but not unless the utility of the old product is over. Green living does not revolve around switching over to the latest, every time a new product introduction happens. It revolves around utilising what we have fully, until the end of its functional life.
Many building components from foundation to final finish can be built by using soil-based ideas.
The last week has been a week of messages in WhatsApp and elsewhere, claiming the highest recorded temperature for any inhabited parts of Earth has touched 60 degree C in Kuwait. We may not get any officially verified version of this possible rumour; it could be a fact or a figment of imagination and could even be a prank message just to amuse us.
Official records claim highest recorded temperatures to be above 56 degrees, as such this figure further moving up is not an impossibility considering the damage and distress we are causing to nature. However, imagining such high temperatures is a frightening proposition. So, what are we doing about it?
Many nations and institutions are addressing climate crisis; yet at the global scale they are yet to make a noticeable dent. If so, should we wait for something to happen through these major players or do our bit individually?
One area to work upon is simply to minimise the use of steel and cement.
Though considered as a boon to the construction industry, these two materials contribute much to resource consumption, energy demands, waste generation and heat production. The indoor and outdoor temperatures around their production plants are virtually uninhabitable.
Most owners and builders cannot imagine building without cement today. RCC is inevitable today, so as a part of it cement too. Yet, should the whole building – foundation, column, walls, lintels, chajjas, beams, stairs, roofs, plastering, waterproofing – be with cement and concrete? At least where possible, can they be with non-cement based material?
Many soil-based options can replace cement fully or in parts during building construction. Soil lends itself to adobe block, rammed earth, stabilised mud block, table moulded or wire cut bricks, jaali units, hollow clay block, clay filler and hourdi roof blocks, Mangalore tiles, water proofing tiles, flooring tile and many such other products.
Unbelievable but true, majority of building components from foundation to final finish can be built by using these soil-based ideas. Brick foundations are possible; jaali blocks make reinforced columns; hollow clay blocks are apt for walls and lintels; mud walls are a proven idea; tiles make attractive chajjas; RCC would have minimal steel and cement in filler roofs; hourdis can create both flat and curved roofs; arch panel and jack arches need only precast beams and clay flooring is among the best for the foot.
This listing may appear like pitching the opposites for a competition. Our media is full of discussions on herbal vs chemical shampoos; traditional vs modern dresses; local vs continental cuisine; made in India vs imported goods and many such others. Likewise, soil vs cement may sound like being part of these debates. However, the intention is not to place them as opposites, but be able to observe the appropriate and make a studied choice.
Today we need to choose not only with a concern for today, but equally with a concern for tomorrow.
Air conditioning and refrigeration have direct link to climate crisis and are considered as enemies.
For millions of years, humans have survived the extremities of nature without conditioning the air. If so, can’t we survive the present climate change without air conditioners? Theoretically yes, but attitudinally difficult, for it’s no more air conditioning that is the challenge, it is the human conditioning.
Air conditioning and refrigeration have direct link to climate crisis and are considered among the enemies of nature. A few decades ago, AC was installed where it was inevitable, but today it is projected as a necessity, which is a myth driven by the consumerist market.
Human settlements across the globe have shown that we can manage with 4 or 40 degree Celsius temperature with minor adjustments in food and clothing, two major means of adapting ourselves to the changing weather. Different civilisations have discovered many other means, including shifting working hours; summer and winter indoor spaces; orientation-based wall thickness; and varied window detailing.
In many ways, human adaptation to weather was akin to those of slumbering animals or leave shedding plants, learning from the animal and survival instincts we all possess. Given this natural phenomenon, it is more important that we adapt to room temperatures and not install air conditioners to force the room to adapt to us.
If millions of Indians are living without AC, it should be possible for the minority few of us also to live so. If we deny this possibility, we get into a trap where the combination of physiological and mental states will ensure we justify the AC. Even if an ecologically aware mind denies it, the body will demand it. The reverse where the mind demanding it even if body could adjust is also true.
The real challenge of summer is not to cool our body with cold rooms and even colder drinks, which only increase the variation between body and atmospheric temperatures. We need to reduce this variation by consuming warmer drinks and keeping the indoor air humid. After all, we cannot air condition the whole city, but can condition the body to adapt.
In case AC is already a habit, we can try modulating indoor humidity, air velocity and room temperatures to minimise damage to environment. Instead of 22 degree of dry cold, 28 degree with increased humidity may be better. If outside temperature is around 40 degrees, indoors at 28-35 could still be fine. Individually, we cannot switch off hotel or office AC, but can avoid the coldest parts, totally avoiding AC elsewhere.
The perils of modern lifestyle are yet to dawn on us. The few who talk about climate in kitty parties are yet to walk the talk. One simple way of doing the walk is to minimise or live without air conditioners.
It is used everywhere injudiciously, in the name of comfort, increasing resource consumption and waste production.
Human society has strange habits. When a great idea comes along, we may resist it until the idea wins us over or the idea itself dies. Strangely, when a disastrous product is introduced, even while knowing the harm it is causing, we blindly fall in love with it and promote it.
Look at the mineral water sold in plastic bottles, condemned by subject experts on all fronts like debatable water purity, challenges of waste disposal, and avoidable resource consumption, besides the use-and-throw culture. Yet, these bottles rule us today.
Another equally questionable part of modern civilisation is air conditioned spaces in homes, cars, offices, shops and virtually everywhere. Hyped as one among the greatest innovations of our times, the harm it has done and continuing to do is buried deep, so hardly anyone speaks against it, so everyone seeks it.
This is not to question the very technology of air conditioning, very beneficial at many places from operation theatres in hospitals to large public halls, which cannot be naturally lit and ventilated.
Technology of refrigeration has enabled newer avenues, be it in preservation or in food for space travel. The problem starts when air conditioning is employed not only where necessity beckons, but everywhere injudiciously, in the name of comfort.
All that air conditioning does is to throwing the indoor heat out, warming up the outdoors. Long hours of working under A.C. in offices reduces our body capacity to withstand heat, as such when we come out, we seek cool air in the car and home too, cumulatively leading to the proliferation of air conditioned indoors. The more we do it, the more will be urban heat islands which has no solution today.
Global warming is directly blamed on greenhouse gas emissions, which increase with increased use of any refrigeration system because of their dependency on CFC, HFC and such others. Though improved coolants have been introduced, harming of the ozone layer continues. Heating and cooling have been listed among the major consumers of electricity in developed nations and India is catching up. Electricity seldom comes from clean sources like solar or hydropower. As such, A.C. is an indirect cause for the depletion of non-renewable resources burnt to produce power.
Not all air conditioners are maintained well periodically. In case of any leakage, there will be the release of chemicals which harm the ozone layer, besides reducing the cooling power of the unit. Technological advances are creating rapid obsoleteness causing large wastages to the manufactured units with high embodied energy. Thus, air conditioning directly impacts resource consumption and waste production. Listing how air conditioning makes no green sense can go on, but it is time we introspect our habits and change them.
Air conditioning may keep us cool, but it further increases global warming.
People with low economic status tend to think that the wealthy are healthier; and they see that the rich people stay in air conditioned spaces in homes, offices, cars and shops, while they are toiling in uncomfortable ambiences.
As such, the myth spreads hat living in artificial environments is better than living with natural conditions.
Modern construction technology can provide air conditioning to any kind of space.
With the AC costs coming down every season and claims about green buildings adopting more efficient systems like radiant cooling, evaporative cooling and such others besides the conventional HVAC systems, building owners do not feel guilty for installing air conditioning.
However, are all the people living inside such artificial environments happy and healthy? Contrary to what the economically poor may dream, reports suggest otherwise. Living without fresh air, day light and nature is today proven to be very unhealthy.
Many indoor spaces do not have adequate fresh air inlet and air change as required, leading to what is called Sick Building Syndrome. Lack of ventilation can also lead to a feel of suffocation, partly due to increased ambient indoor heat, creating a sense of dryness.
The AC can take away internal humidity at such fast rate, too many people feel dehydrated inside, with dried lips and skin.
In places with short summer spells of a few weeks, like in Bengaluru, it is not worth fixing air conditioners for the short duration, letting it lie idle rest of the year.
When we get out of an AC space, the temperature difference between inside and outside causes what is called thermal shock. It can affect the body immune system.
Despite all these, we continue to live with conditioned air, rather than the natural. However, the indoor cool comes at a cost, further increasing the heat island effect and directly promoting greenhouse gas emissions.
Thus, air conditioning may keep us cool, but it further increases global warming.
It is time we realised that this equipment can harm our health and endanger the Earth.
How many of us realise that air conditioners are bad for human health? How many of us know that air conditioners harm the environment? A better question to ask – how many of us who know these truths have stopped or at least reduced using air conditioners?
A paradox of our times is the ever increasing popularity of ACs. As the temperatures soar high, one summer thought that comes to everyone’s mind is to get the house or office air conditioned. It is impossible today not to see an advertisement by the manufacturer, a discount offer by the distributor or a sales pitch by the shop outlet during a casual day out in the city. No cars are being made now without AC, and non-air conditioned hotel rooms are already hard to come by. Even small shops in small towns are boasting of AC.
Just in a decade or two, how come this technology has swept across all climatic zones – hill stations like Matheran, dry regions like Ladakh, rain forests of Wayanad, monsoon city of Mangaluru – as if this is a singular solution to human suffering. Ironically, the comfort that’s promoted here is not the real scientific biological comfort defined by dry bulb temperature, wet bulb temperature, humidity, air change, body level breeze and such indoor conditions.
Equally surprising, from an environmental perspective, not many people have spoken against this singular invention of humankind that demands lot of electricity thus causing depletion of fossil fuel; made from manufactured materials with high embodied energy; and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and has been witnessing advancing technology, creating obsoleteness.
Just a habit
One major factor behind this spread is the human impulse for habit forming. For every car driver who claims it is too hot outside, there would be thousands of people walking or working outside in the same high heat. The car owner has simply lost the body capacity to bear heat. Air conditioner conditions us, and it is as habit forming as alcohol is. If we ask anyone habituated to an air conditioner, if they were miserable failures at home or work before they lived with air conditioners, no one would say ‘yes’. It would have been business as usual or possibly the financial success of those days has led them to new affordability now. By air conditioning, we do not sweat in summer, but make the Earth sweat. We do not shiver in winter, but make the Earth shiver. For millions of years, humans sweated and shivered, so the Earth survived.
Now that the Earth has started sweating and shivering in the form of climate change, it threatens the survival of humans. It is time we realise how our present actions can erase our future. It is time we realise how air conditioners can harm our health and endanger the Earth. Let us explore them in the coming essays
There are simple ways to go about it, and air conditioners are not necessary.
In hot climatic zones like Rajasthan, people used to sleep on terraces. Even in places like Delhi, one can see many low income and middle class people sleeping outdoors, on pathways or verandahs. In slightly more humid regions like Kerala or Kolkata, traditional homes have perforated windows and doors with louvres which are kept open at night.
The principle behind these and more of such practices is simple – the night temperature is always much lower than the daytime in summer months. If we can ensure that the benefits of lower temperature are exploited, one can ensure a good night’s sleep. Our body works much on a comparative basis, where the reduced night temperature itself provides the relief we need, after exposure to a daylong heat. The emerging practice of sleeping at 22 degrees chilled air and then face the next day’s wrath at 40 degrees is neither healthy nor inevitable.
The accompanying picture is an apt example to show how we can manage indoor comforts through managing air. We need three kinds of air, first being cross ventilation, achieved through windows in differently oriented windward walls. Secondly, we need body-level breeze made possible by the ceiling fan. The third one, displacement ventilation, is the most important for indoor thermal comfort. It displaces the hot indoor air – air warmed up by solar heat gain on ceilings, heat conducted through the walls, heat dissipated by human bodies inside and any mechanical instruments – through roof-level openings and lets in cooler outside air.
Typically, most indoor spaces today do not have voids at ceiling level, hence the warmer indoor air gets stuck inside the room. In the picture too, the wall just below the roof has no ventilator, the idea cancelled due to provision of air conditioner, though elsewhere in the same building there are displacement ventilators. In the process, this particular room gets heated up during the summer months, so the AC steps in, while the whole year it stays nearly idle.
During the summer months, the real challenge is not to cool the indoor air, an idea which leads to installing an air conditioner, which is an energy guzzling, unsustainable and cost escalating practice. Simply throwing out hot air and letting in the cooler air from outside can make a notable difference in reducing indoor heat, though it may not be as effective as an air conditioner.
Among the temporary arrangements, turning the table fan towards the window is the simplest. After keeping a few windows open, turn on the fan with its face outside. It works like displacement ventilation cooling the indoors in a short time. Unlike the roof-level voids which work at a height, here the warmer air at body level gets thrown out. The ceiling fan can compliment the air circulation.
The case of the fan may be a makeshift solution for few
When we create a high carbon footprint and cause enormous greenhouse gas emissions, we are doing a disfavour to the environment.
It may sound absurd to ask anyone, at whose cost are you living. Of course they will say it’s at their own cost or the children may say they are living on their parent’s earnings. The very thought that one has to live at other’s costs is not taken as an honourable position.
It is not the cost of living we need to observe, which is commonly discussed everywhere from the family dining table to annual city surveys by agencies. What we need to look into deeply is at whose cost are we living, which many of us may assume to be a simple question. The car buyer is doing so at the cost of her bank balance, the alcoholic is drinking at the cost of his health and short-tempered people continue to get angry at the cost of their public relations. Many more examples can follow, all suggesting the personal costs.
Beyond living at the cost of ourselves, we also live at the cost of the society. The sleeper class train ticket recovers only half the expenditure from the traveller. The actual investment on power and water is not charged to users. Subsidies have dominated farming sector, to help the poor farmers who cannot pay actual costs.
The savings achieved by the salaried and many self-employed people happens at the cost of the informal sector, who are made to take home meagre money for the same number of working hours as everyone else, a social disease we are perpetuating.
Beyond these two, living at the cost of ourselves and cost of society, there is one more happening increasingly nowadays. We are living at the cost of ecology, hence at the cost of human civilisation itself.
A high carbon footprint flight across the continent, stay in an energy guzzling luxury hotel and day-long conference in lavishly furnished air-conditioned banquets directly boosts greenhouse gas emissions, even if the theme could be on sustainability.
One family weekend spent in a hill resort eating in the fine-dine restaurant with cuisine from across the continents happens at the cost of earth resources, even if we have the money to pay the bills. Such cases are aplenty.
Are we not aware of all this, our direct contribution to climate change? Of course we are, yet we find it difficult not to do what we should not be doing. The challenge ahead of us is not living the way we do because we can pay the costs, but living without costing the Earth.