The climate crisis has caused a rush for solutions, many of which are false, often linked to corporate greed taking advantage of the desperation to further accumulate wealth and control, by pushing more and more of humanity’s collective wealth into markets, and in turn into the hands of the wealthy elites.
As always, energy is central to the problem, and its’ solutions critical in dealing with the climate crisis. This article explores how the energy sector can move towards a carbon-free and socially-just energy world. The current trend within the energy debate is heavily-focused on technological solutions and fixes, with very little focus on changing the systems that have created the destructive, wasteful, unjust and carbon-intensive energy world that has been a major cause of the climate crisis. This raises the question of whether we are too focused on looking further forward down the same road versus trying a new path, even looking back to explore past solutions that we have abandoned, but that may be very relevant to our current reality.
Our current paths are based on power relationships, resulting in linear, hierarchical structures and dynamics. The advancement of technology, especially after the Industrial Revolution, has changed our relationship with nature, from adapting and being in balance to one of dominating nature. Humanity began to see itself as above nature, more powerful and smarter than nature… We believed that our technological advancements made us invincible. We entered the Age of Arrogance. Now we are in a climate crisis, but still believing that we can overcome this crisis with technology. We need to look back and learn from our mistakes and focus on system change. “Sit down…be humble”, as the song goes.
This reality can be seen everywhere, but to illustrate the issue in a more specific way, we look at air conditioning (A/C). This is something many of us in hot climates know well, but don’t realize how this technology has molded today’s world and many of its problems.
Before the era of A/C, local communities dealt with harsh, hot climates by adapting their behavior and structures to the environment. Nature set the rules and reality, and we adapted; we found ways to be in balance. Even today in Mozambique, communities are more active during the early and late parts of the day when temperatures are lower, and they rest during the hottest part of the day in shady, green and cooler areas. Many hot countries had and still have similar habits to protect themselves, such as the ‘siesta’ in Latin countries.
Keeping living areas cooler was achieved by using local materials that had good thermal characteristics for the local climate, combined with orientation/ placement of buildings and construction methods, and even simpler options like using light colours, that all aided in managing high temperatures.
For example, in hot and dry areas, it is common to use hefty materials with high thermal mass such as stone, calcareous rock, adobe, etc, which soak up heat during the day and release it during the cold nights. The construction often has flat roofs, small windows that allow for air circulation, but minimal heat radiation and greenhouse effect.
In hot and humid climates, it’s more common to build high roofs or ‘copulas’, breeze ways, screens in sleeping quarters, large shaded areas, verandas and more. Hot climates often used numerous features and methods such as courtyards, openings, buffer spaces, water bodies, wind traps, air circulation channels, deflectors, cavity walls and much, much more to make hot areas cooler and more comfortable. Numerous studies have shown the success of traditional vernacular construction where indoor temperatures can be 6 to 10°C lower than outside temperatures.
Even the layout of traditional settlements take into account the local climate with building spacing, placement and alignment being constructed to maximize shade, minimize the surfaces exposed to the sun (linear houses with north-south orientation), and to maximize cooling by the prevailing winds. It has been recently shown that many modern cities have higher temperatures just due to the layout of high-rise buildings and their relationship with the local climate, especially winds. For example Tokyo has areas that have an average increase of 2.5°C due to the placement, layout, distance of buildings and how they interact with the local climate. Computer modeling and experiments in new, emerging mega-cities, such as in China, have shown that not only can one avoid this temperature increase, but even decrease the local temperatures just by taking into account these factors that many ancient cultures have been using for thousands of years. So if just a building can have a temperature decrease of 6 to 10°C, when one includes settlement layout there is a huge potential, and it makes one understand how people managed to live relatively comfortably in these hot climates without the existence of A/C.
So, now we in a good position to start the story of A/C. Once A/C became readily available, we stopped trying to build efficient buildings. We thought we were no longer at the mercy of nature and could dominate nature. We could have any type of building in the hottest desert kept at almost any temperature, and today we have lush green golf courses and even snow-laden ski-slopes in the Dubai desert.
The big shift started after World War II, with numerous industries promoting A/C, especially in the US where the construction sector wanted to increase profits, decrease costs, and saw A/C as a way to drop the heftier thermal materials and move away from locally-adapted construction methods towards a standardized, quick, light and cheap construction model. They took away the responsibility of keeping the interior cool and comfortable, from the architects and toward the engineers through adhoc A/C installations. At the same time, the energy sector was also pushing strategies to increase energy consumption in the US, especially in households. The adoption of A/C was central to the growth and profit of the energy sector. Thermally-inefficient households and buildings, were perfect for creating a dependency on A/C and guarantee a high energy and A/C use.
As always, these interests went hand-in-hand with lobby groups, policy pushes and marketing. Lobby groups pushed forward regulations and policies that set narrow interior temperatures for working and public spaces, but they were not based on research and science. Instead they were influenced by the interest of lobby groups that pushed for lower indoor working temperatures in hot climates, in order to increase the areas that would require artificial temperature regulation. In addition, they refer to the interior spaces to have such temperatures, and not just the areas were people work, so less-used areas like emergency stairways, storage rooms, etc, are still kept at these lower temperatures even though no people use these spaces. Marketing strategies pushed air conditioners (A/Cs) as an essential component of modern living, and highlighted the heath benefits of A/Cs, through misleading, industry-funded research. Some of the false claims were that the air was healthier, interiors were free from pollen, dust and other pollutants, and even that it improved eating.
The boom of A/C also contributed to huge changes in settlement patterns in the uncomfortably hot southern part of the US, often referred to as the hot belt. This area saw a huge boom in population. Prior to the adoption of A/C, only 28% of the US population lived in these areas, but today it counts for almost 50% of the US population, with many studies showing settlement patterns and migration linked to the spread of A/C. Florida grew from 1 million inhabitants in 1920 to over 7 million 50 years later; Houston doubled its population with the A/C boom, and numerous other US cities doubled and some even quadrupled in size.
In the US today, there are huge 3000 cubic metre homes in 35°C+ climates being kept at 23°C during the day while all their occupants are out at work. The A/C energy use has doubled between 1993 and 2005. The energy use on A/C alone is more than energy use of all sectors in 1955. This results in greenhouse gas emissions of over 500 million tons per year, more than the construction sector, including from the production of materials such as cement. If we use Africa as a comparison, it becomes even more shocking. In 2010, the US energy use for A/C was more than the entire energy use of Africa for all proposes! That’s why changing our energy system is so vital in dealing with the climate crisis.
This article’s data is very US based, partly because a lot of data exists for the US, which makes it easier to highlight the issues in detail, but the other reason is the role of the US in exporting and pushing its model around the world and influencing how other countries develop. Here at home in Mozambique, this is clear to see, not only do our emerging middle class and elites strive to live the life of US decadence, but our governments also sees this as the development path for Mozambique. Africa, and certainly Mozambique, are going through a strong population and urbanization boom and if this boom follows the US model it will result in scary climate consequences.
Today’s “modern” buildings without A/C have interior temperatures higher than the outside temperatures, while our older traditional buildings had interiors that were significantly cooler than the outside. Too much of today’s architecture has lost a sense of place, dropping function to focus on form and style. However, when we do look back at our past solutions and add some modern ideas the potential is amazing. For example, the Pearl Academy of Fashion on the outskirts of Jaipur, India is located in a very hot, dry desert climate (over 40°C temperatures), but the architects did a great job of looking back at old traditional Indian buildings and including modern interpretations of different cooling systems, such as open courtyards, water bodies, baoli (step-well), jaalis (perforated stone screen), and more. The result is a building with 17°C cooler temperature than the outside climate and no need for artificial cooling. Furthermore, the construction costs weren’t significantly higher than the mainstream alternatives, and the long-term savings in energy bills, equipment maintenance, etc are huge. Plus, they are more independent and less affected by the unstable energy supply of the area.
The above example was mostly based on simpler traditional cooling solutions, but many buildings have combined traditional solutions with more modern options and achieved amazing results. For example the ‘New Office of Munich’ in Germany consumes 73% less energy than a equivalent standard office building. Even skyscrapers can be made to use less energy for cooling. For example, the Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, China uses 53% less energy than conventional skyscrapers, and uses its built-in turbines and solar panels to often produce energy in excess of its needs and can feed it into the grid. The Pixel building in Melbourne has gone even further and produces all of its energy and water needs with a mix of traditional solutions like a living roof, passive cooling, shades, blinds, rainwater harvesting, etc, coupled with modern option like turbines, solar, software and more. Old buildings can also be retrofitted to improve energy efficiency. The Empire State building’s retrofit managed to decrease its energy consumption by 38%, corresponding to 4 million dollars savings per year. The examples are many and growing by the day, and some of the more technically complex options may not be viable for Mozambique’s reality, but there are many traditional and simple options that are very cost-effective and suitable for our reality.
However, the focus of this article isn’t to discuss which solutions to use or not, but for us to shift from the arrogance of thinking we can dominate nature through technology and that same approach can solve the climate crisis. Whatever solutions we think are best should come from harmony and balance with nature, and be centred on social justice. We have used many of these solutions in the past, before technology made humanity think we were gods. Sometimes the solution is just stopping with the bad. By ending this age of arrogance and greed, we allow for true and just solutions to grow. Like in a forest, when one tree falls, it is not replaced by another fully grown tree, it is the gap created that gives rise to a new tree to grow in its place. Let us remove the shadows of arrogance, greed and power, and allow the sun to shine on the true solutions and let them grow us out of these crises.