The Fifth Fuel: Hong Kong and Its Mindset

Monday, July 18, 2011

by Bettina Wassener, NEW YORK TIMES, July 17, 2011

dreamstime_xs_19522288 Without fail, every year since moving to Hong Kong, I get a really bad cold. Sometimes two. This year, it was full-blown bronchitis. “Oh, it’s quite common this time of year,” my doctor told me. “Everyone gets sick.”

He was referring to the time of year that Hong Kong cranks up its air-conditioning. While temperatures outside are sweltering, offices, shops, malls and public transport systems become zones of fearsome cold. My bronchitis was induced by three days spent in Arctic conditions on the premises of the University of Hong Kong while outside, the thermometer topped 30 degrees Centigrade (86 Fahrenheit). It was made worse by a decision go to the movies, where not even a sweater, scarf and socks could keep away the chills.

In Hong Kong, as in much of the rest of the world right now, a debate is raging about how best to generate the additional electricity that is needed to power economic growth and development.

Do we use more oil and coal, which pollute and are ultimately finite? Or nuclear energy, which comes with safety concerns, and is being phased out entirely in Germany? Or renewable energies like solar power, which many nations are promoting, but which make up only a small portion of the energy mix in most countries, and often have physical limitations?

Relatively little attention is being paid to what some analysts refer to as the “fifth fuel”: ways to consume less energy in the first place.

This is odd. After all, energy efficiency and reduced consumption are comparatively easy to achieve, especially in places like Hong Kong, where rapid economic development has led to soaring consumption, but where environmental awareness is not yet as established as in the West.

“A lot of energy is being wasted here,” said Elizabeth Quat, the founding president of the Energy Saving and Environment Concern Alliance, a nongovernmental organization that campaigns for more energy efficiency in Hong Kong. “There is much more that we can be doing here.”

A poll conducted by Ms. Quat’s organization supports her point. It showed that many Hong Kong residents had yet to adopt the kind of energy-saving behavior that has become common in Europe and the United States. Many people, the survey found, leave windows open even when the air-conditioning or heating is on, or keep water heaters permanently set on the maximum. The same goes for shops and bars, which generally keep doors wide open during business hours, letting precious cooling escape, and offices, which mostly keep temperatures excessively chilly.

“So many people are simply not aware of how much energy they are wasting,” Ms. Quat said.

One of the problems is that Hong Kong has some of the highest rental and property prices in the world. That means that electricity expenses make up a relatively small portion of the costs facing store managers and households, said Bill Barron, an energy and environment specialist at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

On the upside, the concept of making buildings more energy efficient is starting to take root in Hong Kong and in many places like it.

A green building standards program known as the building environmental assessment method, or BEAM, was set up in Hong Kong in the 1990s. Globally, buildings account for more than one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. In highly urbanized places like Hong Kong, whose densely clustered high-rises block much of the natural cooling from sea breezes, the figure is closer to 70 percent, industry experts estimate. So adopting building and design practices and materials that reduce energy use and emissions can make a big difference.

More than 270 commercial and residential developments have applied for BEAM certification since the program’s start in 1996. But that covers only a small part of the total property space in Hong Kong. [Read rest of article]

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