In the early days of the pandemic, when social media was only getting acquainted with the terms COVID-19 and social distancing, a rather thought-provoking meme made the rounds which read climate change needs the publicist of coronavirus – which does make sense. Although the pandemic is an ongoing public health crisis, we need to act with the same sense of urgency to address the threat posed by climate change. Also, much like the pandemic, it needs a similar globally-coordinated response and asks people to lead the change by adapting to sustainable ways of living. 

In comparison, the threat of climate change, however, is more severe in some regions of the world than in others. Just now, we are seeing unprecedented fires sweeping through the US west coast states. Last December and January, Australian forests and towns were ablaze. For urbanized communities such as Jakarta and Singapore, the impact of climate change may be just as severe. Studies now show that cities like Singapore may be growing more vulnerable to man-made phenomena such as the urban heat island effect, intensifying the impact of climate warming. 

Environmental issues in Southeast Asia are undeniable. We are always exploring how technology might have the answers to these problems.

While more and more people are concerned about climate warming, many see it as something that’s far too big for one person to make a difference. They fear for the future but are not sure what they can do about it in their personal life.

The role of Southeast Asia’s air conditioning dependence

white air condenser unit

One of the main drivers of climate warming is energy use. In Southeast Asia, transport and air conditioning account for most energy use by families, and most of the energy is generated by burning gas or coal, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, the main driver of climate warming. Most of the refrigerant gases that leak from split air conditioners are also big contributors to climate warming.

Energy use itself makes cities warmer: this is known as the urban heat island effect (UHI). This includes the heat generated in the production of energy, heat emissions from factories, cars, smartphones, even people. Additionally, as more roads, buildings, and skyscrapers displace vegetation, sunlight heats their surfaces and the temperature rises relative to areas outside the city, up to 7° higher at night. Singaporeans who constantly find themselves running to the fan or to the air conditioner to escape the urban heat would be able to relate to this. What is ironic is to learn that the air conditioner that we use to escape the heat is among the major contributors to UHI. 

When air conditioners suck in the heat from our rooms and release it to the outdoors, the outdoor temperature consequently increases. This now forces the air conditioner to consume more power in order to cool the warmer air drawn in from the outdoors – a positive feedback loop that causes air conditioners to continually draw more power. Research shows that air conditioning systems can consume more than 50 percent of total electricity during extreme heat and put a strain on electrical grids, consequently leading to more generation of electricity and heat. For a city like Singapore which has adopted air conditioning more than many others, without new technologies, the consequences of air conditioning could be severe in coming decades. 

The solution is in energy conservation

The good news is that new technologies are emerging to help people use less energy. Research suggests that making personal choices that reduce your climate impact is one of the best ways to overcome the fear of the future, and one of the easiest choices is to reduce electricity consumption from fossil-fuelled thermal power stations. Even better, many of these choices can save money and improve health as well!

Solar panels have decreased in price so much that they have become the cheapest source of new electricity generation. Installing solar panels on your roof will help reduce your reliance on thermal electricity during the day. However, most families use the greatest amount of electricity at night, particularly for air conditioning while sleeping, when the sun is not shining. New battery storage systems are appearing enabling storage of excess solar energy collected during the day when you’re out working or shopping. Maybe you can afford to invest as much as SGD 20,000 for a smart battery system to run split air conditioners in your family bedrooms through the night. If not, read on.

A recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) notes that if air conditioners used half as much energy as now, we could save up to 460 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in the next four decades, equivalent to 8 years of the entire world’s emissions. The report recommends that a switch to efficient and ‘climate-friendly’ appliances could push down harmful emissions monumentally. 

Families and businesses can do this themselves. One way to achieve significant energy savings is to raise the split air conditioner thermostat setting to around 27°C and use a ceiling fan to create a sensation of comfort, even though the indoor temperature is higher than normal for air conditioned spaces. At this setting, much less energy is needed to maintain the room temperature in a typical Southeast Asian building. There is also much less water condensation. 

Personal air conditioning is another way to slash family energy consumption, especially at night. Nearly all the energy used by today’s room air conditioners cools bricks, tiles and concrete, none of which feel the heat. Personal air conditioners cool people directly and save 75% or more of the energy used in a split aircon. They work in any building and there’s no need for insulated walls, pipes or installation. Doors and windows can remain open allowing healthy fresh air to circulate. Users experience less skin, eye and breathing irritations arising from room air conditioner dehumidification. Some come with an optional bed tent that shuts out insects and reduces energy consumption even more.

Personal air conditioning could also reduce the cost and materials needed for new buildings. For example, making concrete contributes about 7% of CO2 emissions world-wide. Modern air conditioned apartment buildings are made from concrete and glass because the rooms need to be tightly sealed for conventional room air conditioners to work. Traditional Southeast Asian buildings were made from renewable timber and bamboo with plenty of fresh air ventilation. Personal air conditioners work best in these traditional buildings that are not only cheaper but also healthier to live in.

As more solar energy comes online, daytime electricity prices will plummet, as is happening now in Australia where much of the daytime electricity is now solar. This upends conventional strategies to minimize electricity spending. Traditionally, night-time off-peak power has been cheaper: in the future daytime electricity will be cheaper. Industries will adjust by installing variable speed production lines that run faster as energy prices fall, and slow to a crawl at night when energy is more costly. Firms and large buildings will be able to save by storing electricity in chilled water tanks with special phase-change materials. The cold water provides night-time refrigeration or space cooling. Cheap solar electricity can even be stored by heating special concrete: the heat can be retrieved later for process heating and hot water.

What’s on the horizon

As solar energy prices fall, thermal electricity prices will rise, even though the oil price may remain low. Southeast Asia is relying on many older thermal power plants that will soon need replacing. These plants are financed with long term bank loans to which many different international banks contribute to share the risks between them. The international finance community is now well aware that the need to eliminate CO2 emissions by about 2050 limits the operating life of new thermal power plants without carbon capture and storage (CCS). Therefore, they require that the loans for new thermal power plants are repaid well before 2050. Given that a new power plant built today will take five years before it can start operating at full power, the loans will need to be repaid over about 15 years of operations rather than 30 years as in the past. The power generating companies need to raise their electricity prices to be able to repay the loans sooner.

Distribution network costs are also rising fast because of the need to accommodate more solar and wind generation. All this means that the smart choice is to use less night-time electricity. As more and more people make that choice, thermal power stations will be used less, and will have to increase charges even further to cover their operating costs. Of course, as thermal power is used less, air quality will improve and so will the health of millions across Southeast Asia.

This was contributed by James Trevelyan, CEO Close Comfort Pty Ltd, Emeritus Professor at The University of Western Australia

About the author

A renowned engineer from Australia, Professor James Trevelyan is the founder of Close Comfort. He has been an engineer, researcher, and educator since 1971 and is a Fellow of Engineers Australia. He has also received the prestigious Engineers Australia medal for meritorious

Trevelyan’s dream of an energy-efficient, eco-friendly, and affordable air-conditioning technology inspired him to invent the Close Comfort personal air conditioner in He led many years of research and development, travelling across the world to test the device in different climatic conditions – including some of the hottest regions on the planet – before the first unit went on sale to customers in 2016.

Prior to founding Close Comfort, Trevelyan had already established a reputation for building inventions that generate positive societal and environmental impact. He led the development of the world’s first sheep-shearing robot at the University of Western Australia in 1979, a major achievement in robotics for its time. His team demonstrated the “Shear
Magic” robot in 1989, automatically shearing and manipulating sheep to remove entire intact fleeces.

In 1994, he led another team to create ‘Australia’s telerobot on the Web’, a
teleoperated industrial robot which was one of the earliest demonstrations of the Internet of Things (IoT). He went on to develop several innovations to make land mine clearance operations safer and more productive in countries like Afghanistan, Cambodia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Trevelyan has also made significant contributions to education. He continues as an Emeritus Professor at the University of Western Australia.

He authored the book The Making of an Expert Engineer, which explains the principles of engineering practice based on 12 years of field research and observations of hundreds of engineers in several countries. His research on engineering practices and infrastructure development in low-income countries continues to this day with academic publications and regular appearances as keynote speaker at international conferences.

Trevelyan received a Bachelor of Engineering degree and Master degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Western Australia.