x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Green Queen: Turn up the thermostat to limit waste and improve health

This small change can make a surprisingly large difference to the environment and to our well-being.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety says employees who work in offices that are too cold can be restless and easily distracted. Marja Airio / Rex Features
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety says employees who work in offices that are too cold can be restless and easily distracted. Marja Airio / Rex Features

Before moving here I prepared myself for the heat - or tried to - because the Middle East is known for its scorching temperatures. I had read about the indoor freeze but it was only when I got here that I could truly understand it.

Thick sweatshirts and socks got me through those first months in a chilly hotel room. I wore a sweater at work, wishing for the fleece and gloves I had left back home in Canada. I almost wrapped myself in a curtain hanging along the wall at the cinema while suffering through my first film, and I once had to wrap up a dinner earlier than I would have liked simply because the frigid restaurant was making me miserable.

I also had a host of throat infections, which a doctor and a pharmacist told me was not only a reaction to the heat, but to the extremes between the heat and the cold indoors.

When it comes to its air conditioned interiors, the UAE is far, far too cold. Things need to change, and for far more compelling reasons than personal comfort - although that is the most immediate and relatable factor. Residents of the UAE have a tendency to guzzle natural resources the country does not have, for starters.

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During the summer months, air conditioning accounts for a whopping 60 per cent of all energy consumed in the UAE. In a National/YouGov survey published before last year's World Future Energy Summit, those surveyed acknowledged that air conditioning regularly accounts for almost half of energy consumed throughout the year. There is no way to get around the fact that air conditioning is a necessary fact of life for at least half of the year in the Middle East. Yet a recent story in The National by the environment reporter Vesela Todorova illuminated an approach to minimising it that is so simple but effective that I can't believe everyone is not doing it already.

The tactic? Increasing the temperature by a mere two degrees Celsius, which saves a whopping average of 16 per cent in electricity per year. Considering the figures, it almost seemed an understatement when Tanzeed Alam, the climate change and sustainability manager at the Emirates Wildlife Society - World Wide Fund for Nature, told Todorova: "If you tackle air conditioning consumption, you can make some big savings in energy use."

In her Canadian how-to guide Ecoholic Home, the green expert Adria Vasil suggests implementing an absolute minimum of 25 degrees for the thermostat. She points to other countries that are taking these efforts seriously, such as Japan, where government departments are required to set the air conditioning to 28 degrees.

In an informal experiment conducted within the walls of my one-bedroom apartment, I personally tested whether I could tell the difference between 23 degrees and 25 degrees. I most definitely could not. I challenge everyone to do the same. And if for some strange reason your body's temperature receptors tell you two degrees is two too much, then commit to just one, or even just a half, and work up to it.

I cannot even imagine what an impact this tiny change would have if residents committed to it en masse, let alone the operators of apartment towers, office buildings, shopping malls and hotels.

Are you listening various UAE environment agencies and entities? Could we not make this a national campaign?

Being too cold also has an effect on our health and well-being. When it comes to the workplace, people will never agree on the temperature. In the summer I slip on a pair of socks under my desk, or trusty Uggs, while colleagues beside me wear sandals. Anyone who has worked in a hot office knows it is very hard to stay alert. Yet according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, working in an office that is too cold can lead to problems focusing and employees that are restless and easily distracted.

The centre also recommends that temperatures should be higher inside when it is warmer outside, to minimise the effect of the temperature discrepancy. The Australian workplace safety body Comcare recommends that offices can be kept comfortable at up to 26 degrees when it is hottest outside, considering most people are wearing summer clothes.

There are lots of mistakes we make with our air conditioning that, if corrected, can also lead to energy savings. People with individual units can control those that are on - particularly at night, when only the bedroom needs to be cooled.

There are also those naughty individuals who leave the A/C on when they are out, a major electricity waster.

Others who do shut it off, however, can tend to crank it up in hot desperation when they return. This is just another pointless waste of energy and doesn't work to cool the place any faster, say the experts. They recommend turning on the air conditioning to a reasonable temperature and then having a little patience while it gets you there.

Air conditioning units also need regular maintenance to work efficiently, a fact that was backed up this month by a study of 10 commercial buildings in the capital by the Executive Affairs Authority. It found that properly cleaned and functioning air conditioning units can reduce energy use by 27 per cent.

amcqueen@thenational.ae