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Air Conditioning is harming nature

It is used everywhere injudiciously, in the name of comfort, increasing resource consumption and waste production.

10bgp-greensensGIF1SLLLO3jpgjpgHuman 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.

No solution

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.

Conditioned by Air Conditioners

It is time we realised that this equipment can harm our health and endanger the Earth.

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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

Living at Whose Cost?

When we create a high carbon footprint and cause enormous greenhouse gas emissions, we are doing a disfavour to the environment.

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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.

Ecological damage

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.

Some respite for the environment?

Demonetisation has hit many sectors hard, including construction, but there are some positives too.

31bgpgreensenseg9u12731p-3-jpgEveryone is talking money – demonetisation, political agenda, cash crunch, hoarding new currency, impacts on daily life, IT raids, eradicating black money and hoping for a white future. Rich and poor people alike are finding the daily needs hard to come by with little money in hand, irrespective of how much they have in bank balance or in old currency. We all know there is less money in market; hence business is not as usual.

While so much has been spoken and written about the impact of demonetisation on varied facets of life, hardly anyone has touched upon its impact on ecology and resources. It is strange but true that cash crunch is beneficial to nature.

On a few fronts, the present cash crunch is comparable to the economic recession of the recent past, faced mainly in the west, with some implications for India too. People faced reducing income, challenge of loan repayments, increased unsold inventories, money getting blocked and financial uncertainties looming large. Between all the social tension it created, one of the benefits was reduced consumption, hence earth resources saved, energy used efficiently and wastage reduced.

On a similar note, the recent demonetisation in the country has impacted larger issues of ecology positively. With no ready cash to spend, people have been buying and spending less, of course impacting on everything from tourism to rituals. Incidentally, lesser business does not necessarily mean shops and restaurants are facing losses. They earn less, in turn spend less hoping to extend the new currency they got for as long as they can.

Of course, many people living on daily wages are suffering, for they are already living on minimum daily income and cannot manage with further reduced cash inflow.

Money and materialistic lifestyle are directly proportional, where our lifestyle demands that we earn more money. In turn, income meets the expenditure, increasing production. People earning well may appear to have larger sums with them compared to the rest with lower incomes, but their monthly savings in percentage figure could be often comparable.

This suggests that higher income group spends more, while those with lower income spend less, each spending proportional to their income categories.

A paradox

As such, it is a paradox where money and market fuel each other, which together increase the consumption patterns.

We know that increased consumption is good for economy, but ecologically it is disastrous, irrespective of whether the consumption is for our present needs, future savings or mere personal greed. The rich may have the financial affordability to spend, but our fragile Earth cannot afford to take anymore of our wasteful life.

So, if the present crisis due to demonetisation has reduced our shopping, travelling, holidaying, partying, conferencing, manufacturing, in general spending, it has reduced the consumption of resources.

It could be temporary, until the money flow restores again; yet it is beneficial to nature. Can we ensure this benefit lasts long enough to save the climate?

Where ‘green’ debates are held

In the name of air conditioning, we are cooling the indoors and heating the outdoors! But it has become an integral part of our lives.

air_conditioner_1476300eThere is hardly any seminar today, focused on the themes of energy conservation and sustainability, which goes without reference to air conditioning (A.C.). Considered to be among the fastest expanding human needs, just like flights, phones or cars, air conditioned indoors are on a fast track in every developing country, while the affluent nations have already conditioned most of their indoors.

Impacts of air conditioning on green living is much debated, ironically, most often sitting inside A.C. rooms, suggesting how inseparable it has become from our routine urban lives. The need of the hour is to understand the problems and potentials of the technology behind A.C. Human attempts to control the indoor air must have started right when our ancestors stopped their nomadic lifestyle and became settlers. Mere wrapping up of the body was not adequate to protect us from heat and cold, especially in climatic zones with extremities of temperature. There are records to prove that as early as 2nd century A. D. the Chinese were trying to cool the indoors using ingenious ideas. St. George’s Hall in Liverpool, England, built in 1854, is believed to be the first air conditioned building in the modern era. The credit of adopting modern technology, using electrical energy, for air conditioning goes to Willis Carrier, who in the early 1900s started the trend of air conditioned buildings in the U.S. So, the urge to condition the air has been both historic and human, and cannot be wished away now a century later.

As heat would naturally flow in the opposite direction, we need machines to achieve this. Air conditioning happens by a simple rule of physics which states that liquid absorbs heat when changed from liquid to gas and gases give off heat when changed from gas to liquid. The system follows cycles of expansion, evaporation, compression and condensation, all inside a closed loop. First, the refrigerant liquid is expanded at low pressure and is let into the indoors. In contact with the indoor air, this low pressure liquid absorbs heat, becoming low pressure gas, in the process resulting in lower temperature inside. This heat laden low pressure gas is collected and goes through compressors to become high pressure gas. This hot gas is passed thorough condensers, releasing the heat to outside, becoming high pressure liquid. This pressurized liquid is expanded to become the low pressure gas, repeating the cycle already explained.

In principle, it is the same refrigerant that moves from one machine to another, passing through hot indoors, cooling it and releasing the heat to outside. If we try standing near these machines outside, we can feel the heat being released, so too while crossing a jammed road with majority of air conditioned cars around. So, in the name of air conditioning, while we are cooling the indoors, we are actually heating the outdoors!

How to preserve the environment

Just as we ensure there is money in our bank account, we need to balance our account with the earth.

As the Green Sense series touches the magical number 200 with this essay, we have two choices – take it as a time for celebration or take it as a moment of introspection. We need to choose the second.

There is no rosy picture around us, nor is there a ray of hope for future, however optimistic we wish to be. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has crossed the mythical level of 400 parts per million, possibly leading to faster climate change.

At this rate, global increase in temperature between 1900 and 2100 A.D. could be around 2.0 degrees Celsius or even more. The 21{+s}{+t}century could witness a rise in global mean sea level up to 0. 98 metres. The decade from 2001 to 2010 has been the warmest ever since 1850, possibly making it the hottest since modern human civilisation came to stay.

The 19{+t}{+h}U.N. climate change conference held recently at Warsaw has not evolved any safe road map for the future of the world.

Grim facts

These grim facts may appear far fetched at the global level, making us feel they do not impact our daily life. On the contrary, it’s our daily life which has cumulatively resulted in the above scenario.

How do we ensure there is money in our bank accounts? It sounds like a silly question, for the simple answer any school kid can give would refer to depositing more money than what we withdraw. Every elderly family member advices the young ones not to take credit over drafts or loans that could be difficult to repay. To save the earth, we need to follow the same formula. We need to balance our account with the earth.

We should give back all that we take from Earth and if possible, give more than what we take – individually. Every person may not be able to do it every time, like the younger generation may consume more resources but as we age, we can live with less.

There is one whole life time to balance our resource and energy account with the Earth, finally to ensure we leave this place with eco-balance for our next generations and not loss.

Scepticism

The problems have reached such mega scale now that many are sceptic about what an individual can do. We can act in small ways, but a million immediately doable small actions can achieve more than one mega action, which often is not easy to implement.

We can plant trees, support animals, use less water, go low tech, donate money, do not invest surplus income for more returns, spend for societal causes, manage with basic gadgets, educate the young, live in villages, do volunteer service, do not buy the unwanted, refuse what we can live without, earn just enough for living, avoid luxuries, decline incentives – this list can go on with as many ideas as we can individually live with.