Monday, January 24, 2011

Are Greener Alternatives Practical?

I’m in a quandary about whether I can implement the “lifestyle change solutions” to address the environmental issues we face.  I fly on holiday, drive a petrol engined car and use gas central heating at home.  I’m in awe of those people who can modify or adapt their lifestyles to have as little environmental impact as possible.  I’m dubious about the practicality of whether those approaches can be applied as universally as they would need to be though.

Take air conditioning for example.  I don’t have much experience of it living in the UK, but there are some parts of the globe where it seems to be a prerequisite for human habitation.   The central states of the USA suffered one of their hottest summers ever in 2010 with temperatures rising to more than 105 degrees on some days.  That level of heat of sustained over the course of a day is pretty thermally hostile.  Obviously, more people will switch on their air conditioning in these circumstances, but that potentially could produce more greenhouse gas emissions that in turn make the summers even hotter.

The HVAC industry points to the fact that the refrigerant gas known as R-22, used in domestic air-con systems and heat pumps is progressively being phased out as leaks of R-22 contribute to ozone depletion and the manufacture of the stuff results in a by-product called HFC-23 which also contributes to global warming.  That was a real double environmental whammy!   Even with diligent air conditioning maintenance procedures on new systems that minimise energy consumption and use less dangerous refrigerants, many are calling for reduced dependence on air conditioning.  Some keen environmentalists in the USA choose not use air conditioning as a matter of principle, even on the most hostile days.  They keep cool by staying as inert as possible, dressing appropriately (i.e. in very little but shorts), maybe using ceiling fans but switching off all heat-generating appliances except perhaps for the refrigerator.   Others suggest escaping to the cool of a basement or hammocks under overhanging shade trees.  

There’s my problem right there.  That’s probably a good suggestion, provided of course you have the luxury of a property with things like a basement and a decent yard or garden.  It’s a great suggestion if you are middle class and relatively well heeled and can afford such a property.   For the rest of us largely urban dwelling hominids who live in countries where the summers are habitually “thermally hostile” and live in crowded flats or apartment blocks with little space or cash to spare, the air conditioner is probably the only practical option.

I couldn’t imagine living in some of the southern US states or spending a summer in say Crete or Rhodes without some form of air conditioning.  Modern systems  do as little environmental damage as possible, use  "green" refrigerant gases and run on  energy which can be produced from renewable resources like wind, wave or solar.  While this may not be the perfect solution, it’s probably the most practical and effective one for the vast majority of the world’s mainly urban population who don’t have any possibility of significantly changing how and where they live, but still want to do their bit for the planet.

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