Jill Baker reports on how a region at the forefront of climate change impacts is working to turn down the heat while addressing spiralling demand for energy-hungry air conditioning

In Asia, the climate threat is becoming a clear and present danger. In China’s Henan province, a year’s worth of rain fell in three days in July, with images of frightened passengers trapped by floodwaters in the subway flashed around the world.

In Guangdong, the southern Chinese province that includes Shenzhen and other major cities, this summer’s heatwave caused a spike in demand for air conditioning that led to power cuts for factories. And Taiwan, home to TSMC, the giant chip maker, suffered from power shortages due to severe drought.

Asia is both in the front line of climate change, and crucial for world emissions mitigation.  The region accounts for 45% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and is home to 60% of the world’s population. Asia is also home to the majority of the world’s megacities (urban clusters with over 10 million people), each of which must adapt to increasing climate stress.

Buildings in Asia also account for a higher percentage of GHG emissions than the worldwide average. For example, in Hong Kong, buildings account for some 90% of electricity consumption and 60% of GHG emissions, with demand for air conditioning a major factor. Efficiency improvements depend on tighter regulation.

The Asian built environment is increasingly reliant on concrete and asphalt, with green space too often an afterthought

Governments must use a combination of carrots, such as subsidies for retrofitting old, energy inefficient buildings, and sticks, such as stricter building codes, building energy audits, and climate-risk disclosure standards like the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) to get the job done.

The Asian built environment is increasingly reliant on concrete and asphalt, with green space too often an afterthought. That is one of the reasons the recent heavy rainfall in China led to such extreme and devastating flooding. It also contributes to the urban heat island effect, where cities heat up during the day and don’t cool down at night, leading to the proliferation in use of  energy-hungry air conditioners.

Singapore’s recently updated 2030 Green Plan calls for adding over 130 hectares of new parks and enhancing 170ha of existing parks by 2026 to help mitigate urban heat. While stopping short of a net-zero target because its economy is so reliant on petrochemical refining, Singapore’s plan requires 80% of new buildings to be “super low energy” buildings from 2030, and an 80% improvement in energy efficiency over a 2005 baseline for best-in-class green buildings by 2030.

A woman wades through floodwaters in Zhengzhou, Henan, after heavy rainfall in July. (Credit: Aly Song/Reuters)

In July, Singapore bank DBS cited Singapore’s green plan when it announced it would transform an existing four-story office building, where 400 employees work,  into a net-zero energy building, one of only 500 net zero commercial buildings in the world.

The S$5m renovation will cut its 845,000 kilowatt hour annual energy consumption by nearly 70% by installing smart lighting and air conditioning systems and low energy appliances. Rooftop solar panels will be installed to supply the balance. Close to 10% of the floor area that is currently air conditioned will be converted to natural ventilation.

DBS group head of corporate real estate strategy and administration Erwin Chong said: "We believe that the future of the office needs to be sustainable, and our aim is to eventually scale these innovative technologies across the rest of our offices, branches and lobbies."

Power demand for cooling has an impact on grid loads, so it has an energy security element. It's a scary addition to an already scary problem

A recent McKinsey report finds that Asia is more vulnerable to rising temperatures than other geographies in terms of GDP loss, exacerbating issues of climate justice. “Sustainable cooling sits at the nexus of climate change and development. Heat stress is an inequality aggravator,” says Sindra Sharma-Khushal, of climate change “think-and-do tank” E3G. Her work focuses on helping multi-lateral development banks like the International Finance Corporation (IFC), strategically think about mainstreaming sustainable cooling in their projects and portfolios.

“Cooling is power-intensive,” Dr Sharma-Khushal says. “Power demand for cooling has an impact on grid loads, and spikes in demand can contribute to power outages, so it has an energy security element to it as well … [It’s] a scary addition to an already scary problem.”

Scary indeed. But not insurmountable. Sharma-Khushal points to the Million Cool Roofs Challenge, funded by the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program and other sponsors. It is a global competition in its final stage where teams in 10 developing countries are competing to scale cool roof solutions. Creating a “cool roof” is one relatively low-cost, passive solution. Painting roofs with highly reflective white coating that deflects rather than absorbs the sun’s rays keeps buildings and their occupants several degrees cooler.

Buildings in Asia account for higher GHG emissions, in part because of air conditioning use. (Credit: Wandee007/Shutterstock)

There are promising results as well from the Global Cooling Prize, co-sponsored by Rocky Mountain Institute, Mission Innovation and the Indian government. According to the Global Cooling Prize website, residential cooling demand will grow three-fold globally, and five-fold in developing nations by 2050.

Only 7% of Indian households, for example, have air conditioning. The goal of the prize is to develop a room air conditioner five times more climate-friendly (by using less energy and harmful coolant gas per unit of cooling) than a typical room air conditioner in the market today. Two winning designs, from Japan’s Daikin and China’s Gree, emerged from a list of eight finalists. At the moment, both models are two to three times more expensive to buy, though they end up being only half as expensive to own and operate over their useful lives.

The cost at point of sale will likely come down, though. India has a track record of successfully rolling out energy-efficient products (like LED lighting) through bulk buying, and it will likely do this with the new air conditioners. By the World Economic Forum’s reckoning, India could save 15% of GDP by replacing all its air conditioners with this more efficient technology instead of building new coal-fired power plants.

Cooling accounts for more than one-third of total energy consumption in commercial buildings

District cooling systems (DCS) hold promise for providing community cooling affordably and at scale. Singapore uses district cooling to pipe chilled water from a centralised plant to buildings close to one another within the Marina Bay financial district. In Hong Kong, Arup, the international engineering and design consulting firm, is behind the design and construction of district cooling using seawater to efficiently cool the 320-hectare mixed-use Kai Tak development, which is going up on the site of the former airport.

Vincent Cheng, Arup’s director of sustainability in east Asia, says the DCS will cool an area equivalent to 40 30-storey commercial buildings. DCS will save about 138 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity a year, corresponding to an annual emissions reduction of about 96,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.

While that amounts to less than 1% of Hong Kong’s 40.45 million tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2020, Cheng sees it as a step forward in transforming the way Hong Kong uses energy for air conditioning. With the Hong Kong government planning to adopt DCS for all the new development areas in the coming years, “the amalgamated sum in savings is instrumental to meeting Hong Kong’s decarbonisation goals,” Cheng says. 

Singapore uses district cooling to pipe chilled water from a centralised plant to buildings within Marina Bay. (Credit: SP Group)

Hong Kong, Arup and Civic Exchange, a well-regarded Hong Kong thinktank, have together produced Decarbonising Hong Kong buildings: Policy recommendations and next steps. Their recommendations include: stronger building codes; more frequent energy audits and posting of building performance data; retro-fitting of existing government buildings and improving design standards in public housing; increasing renewable energy generation; mandating disclosure to the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, implementing a carbon tax and participating in a regional emissions cap-and-trade ETS. That is a mouthful – but it is a useful roadmap for all stakeholders in Asia seeking to decarbonise the built environment.

Cheng says the integration of digital tools such as cloud-based building management systems is now a standard recommendation for Arup’s clients.

Cooling accounts for more than one-third of total energy consumption in commercial buildings, and smart-building technology can set optimum building temperatures, by sensing the number of occupants, taking factors such as ambient air temperature and season into account and adjusting accordingly. “A smart building is an efficient building,” Cheng says.

Arup works with technology providers such as Schneider Electric, Siemens, and Johnson Controls, which make smart-building management systems. Swire Properties, for example, uses Schneider Electric’s EcoStruxure, which it is rolling out to all its buildings in Hong Kong and the mainland. This open IoT system collects data from sensors in buildings and integrates it into a central cloud-based platform, giving Swire Properties better insight into energy efficiency across its portfolio.

City Developments Limited is prioritising combatting climate change impacts, particularly the island heat effect

For Singapore-based property developer City Developments Limited, climate risks are material strategic and operational risks, and it is prioritising combatting climate change impacts, particularly the island heat effect, on its portfolio of assets, said Esther An, the company’s chief sustainability officer.

In February this year, it went one further by becoming the first real estate conglomerate in south-east Asia to sign the WorldGBC’s Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment.

The commitment challenges businesses to take leadership action to reach net-zero carbon in operation for every building under their direct control by 2030, and advocates for all buildings to be net-zero carbon in operation by 2050.

To be sure, challenges remain, and none of these solutions is the answer by itself. But with the Glasgow climate summit just around the corner, 2021 could be a year of even more positive change for Asia. As the old Chinese proverb says, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.

Swire shows way forward for decarbonising buildings in mainland China

China alone accounts for about 30% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), due to its high use of coal power. At the same time, it boasts the largest installed renewable energy capacity of any nation. Yet one big issue is “stranded” renewable power, which is not taken up by the grid.

But there are hopes that this can be reduced by scaling up action by developers like Swire Properties, a Hong Kong-based real estate developer, and one of the first in Guangdong province to achieve “net zero carbon” in its annual electricity consumption for landlord and tenants’ operations.

In July, Swire announced that Taikoo Hui, Guangzhou, its flagship development in the Chinese mainland’s Greater Bay Area, is now powered with 100% renewable electricity,  generated by off-site wind power, purchased from a third party. Patrick Ho, Swire Properties' sustainable development manager, explained this was due to a new policy introduced by the Guangdong provincial government, which allows enterprises to procure renewable electricity from a registered energy provider. Similar policies have also been introduced in Sichuan and Yunnan, and it is expected to be rolled out in other provinces of China.

The Taikoo Li Sanlitun retail complex in Beijing. (Credit: testing/Shutterstock)

Swire Properties, which is a member of the Business Ambition for 1.5C coalition, is one of the first real estate developers in Guangdong province to achieve “net zero carbon” in its annual electricity consumption for landlord and tenants’ operations, in this case for a high-end shopping mall, two grade-A office towers and a luxury Mandarin Oriental hotel. Patrick Ho says Swire Properties’ renewables mix in the mainland is now over 37%adding that energy efficiency upgrades were also important to meeting the company’s net zero target.

One example is the Taikoo Li Sanlitun retail complex in Beijing, where Swire has invested RMB150m (£16.9m) in replacing the existing heating and air conditioning system with a more energy-efficient system that can be centrally controlled. The six-year project has already yielded dividends for its commercial tenants, with one tenant seeing monthly energy costs reduced by 96%.

Jill Baker is Jill Baker is an adjunct fellow at the Hong Kong-based Asia Business Council, and is research adviser at Terra Alpha Investments. She was the principal researcher for The Greening of Asia: The Business Case for Solving Asia’s Environmental Emergency

Main picture credit: Chen Min Chun/Shutterstock


climate change  flooding  GHG emissions  air conditioning  Asia  energy efficiency  TCFD  Singapore  2030 Green Plan  Million Cool Roofs Challenge  Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program  Arup  Hong Kong  decarbonising buildings 

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