[Viewpoint]A sea change under way

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[Viewpoint]A sea change under way

Korea took one step closer to the galaxy this spring. Korean astronaut Yi So-yeon may have taken a very short trip to space, but it was a fresh opportunity for all of Korea to experience the galaxy through her eyes.
On Dec. 24, 1968, humans had, for the first time, a chance to see the Earth, a lonely planet floating in the vastness of outer space. It was humbling to see the photograph of our planet Earth, suspended above the grayish moon, transmitted from Apollo 8. The small blue marble floating in the dark immensity of outer space looked so frail and weak that it seemed pathetic.
This frail image of the Earth created among environmentalists a sense of sympathy toward the Earth.
It was a time when the full scale of the damaging effects of industrialization on the environment was being exposed, and when many forecast that a devastation lies ahead in the future due to explosive population growth and the exhaustion of natural resources.
The term “Spaceship Earth” was coined to symbolize the Earth’s limited environmental capacity and resources.
A renewed awareness of the importance of the Earth was instilled by the celebration of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 in the United States.
In 1990, when the full scale of the problem of the greenhouse effect was raised, Earth Day was observed for the first time in 20 years.
Despite heavy rainfall, a ceremony was held in Seoul at the foot of Mount Namsan.
Since then, Earth Day has been observed every year without fail.
Although it is an annual event, it seems that a turning point will happen on Earth Day this year.
For the last few years, issues such as climate change, food and energy resource crises have threatened the whole world.
They are not vague scenarios predicted by some people, but concrete realities already taking place.
The fourth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published early last year, clearly presented the trends of climate change and the goals of the countermeasures being taken against them.
It said that temperatures are rising due to heavy concentrations of greenhouse gas, which are at its highest level in 650,000 years.
The more important message is that the current greenhouse gas emission levels must be lowered to less than half of the present levels by 2050. Otherwise, we won’t be able to keep the global temperature rise for the next 100 years to a minimum of 2 degrees Celsius so the Earth’s ecosystem can sustain itself.
Industrialized countries should reduce greenhouse gas emissions to about 80 percent of the current levels.
Therefore, the European Union presented a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020.
California, which would have the seventh-largest economy in the world if it were an independent country, is also promoting a plan to reduce its gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.
The price of crude oil has risen more than three times in the past four years and exceeded $100 per barrel recently.
The chances are low that the price of oil will go back to the level it used to be, even if international relations stabilize.
International crude oil production is already at its peak, but demand is continuously increasing.
Even optimists who do not think oil has peaked say the peak will come 10 to 20 years from now.
In other words, the current economy that depends heavily on oil will not be able to lead the world economy well into the middle of this century.
The transition to a turning point, where the world enters into the era of a new energy system, does not require complete exhaustion of existing energy resources. Historical shifts in energy resource use did not take place because existing resources were exhausted.
People had used coal, although there were still trees. Then, oil became the major source of energy, although coal could be used for around another 200 years. What this means is that we do not have to wait until we know or experience the precise timing of oil exhaustion before taking action.
Even if that point can be delayed another few decades or even centuries, we cannot wait all that time and then look for a new energy resource. Oil will still be a useful resource for generations to come, and is too valuable to simply burn until it is completely exhausted.
In order to limit the rise in temperatures for the next 100 years to a minimum of 2 degrees Celcius to sustain the Earth’s ecosystem, the current generation or the one that follows it must not monopolize the Earth’s oil resources.
We are already at the turning point of climate change and at a monumental shift in energy resources.
The glaciers in the Arctic circle, the Antarctic and high mountains are going through serious changes that can dramatically change the Earth’s environment.
Judging from the widespread concern over climate change and energy shortages, it seems that a change has started to take place in the minds of the people.
Now, is the time for a turning point to build a low-carbon society.

*The writer is an environmental officer at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Nam Sang-min
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