Turns out, that’s far less the case than one might think.
In many countries in Southeast Asia, offices and public spaces, such as cinemas and malls, are cooled so much that their occupants feel chilly. This is especially so in affluent, urbanised countries such as Singapore, where many buildings have cooling systems designed with an excess peak output of close to 40 percent.
Overcooling buildings makes sense for worst case scenarios, such as heat waves or equipment breakdowns. But most days, these cooling systems do not respond to changes in the weather outside, using up lots of unnecessary power. Wet monsoon seasons, for example, turn already cold buildings into freezers—resulting in building occupants wearing sweaters in the tropics.
Even our buildings themselves are often ill-suited to tropical environments. Western architectural ideals—such as the International Style of skyscrapers—were widely adopted as a symbol of modernity in the 1970s as Asia grew economically. But glass facades demand lots of energy to cool due to their greenhouse effect, and developers often turn to air conditioning for the job. Double-glazed windows and laminated glass help, but they need frequent replacement and are hard to recycle. For these reasons, even the West is turning away from skyscrapers these days.
Air conditioning’s waste heat also adds to the urban heat island effect (UHI), in which human activities make urban areas much warmer than rural areas. For Asian and Australian cities, the UHI can add between 0.5 and 11 degrees Celsius to ambient temperatures, with an average close to 4.1 degrees. This creates more demand for air conditioning use, fueling a vicious cycle of indoor cooling and outdoor heating.