[Outlook]Costly oil, clear skies

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[Outlook]Costly oil, clear skies

I usually take the subway when commuting to and from work, but sometimes I take a cab. When traveling in a cab, I can see that the traffic in Seoul has become much better. There are fewer cars on the streets because of high fuel prices. Some luxury items sell well when they are expensive, but most items are consumed less if the prices go up. That is not only true in Korea. In the United States, people are heavily dependent on cars but these days, people drive less frequently. According to statistics by the Federal Highway Administration, during one month in May, the distance that Americans drove went down by 15.3 billion kilometers from the same period a year before.

Many say there is actually no way of improving traffic in big cities. You can build as many roads and parking lots as you like, but people will still complain that it’s not enough.

But there is the opposite solution, however: making it difficult for private car owners to drive. It sounds like a joke, but it actually makes sense. If the perception spreads that driving one’s own car is not a good deal in many ways, traffic will get better. People can learn that when they drive their cars it takes more time to get to their destinations and it costs more money for fuel, parking fees and tolls.

However, in reality, this theory didn’t work as well as expected. Those who drive their cars looked at drivers next to them and complained “Why is traffic so bad?” The answer to this difficult problem has now been found, in an unexpected solution: high fuel prices which amount to nearly 2,000 won ($2) per liter.

Environmental issues have long been major concerns in every sector. People don’t pay much attention to the issues, however, even though activists emphasize the importance of the environment. That is because people are basically selfish. They understand that we need to protect the environment, but if that requires inconvenience in daily life people don’t do what they should. However, even though people don’t adapt to conserve the environment, as fuel prices skyrocket, less people drive. As a result they finally take part in preventing air pollution. Money does what moral ethics can’t do. That’s the power of money.

The air in Seoul is said to be the cleanest this year since 1995, when we started collecting information on air quality. In the first half of the year, the average thickness of tiny dust particles in the air was 62 micrograms per cubic meter. (A microgram is one-millionth of a gram.) That’s 10 micrograms less than the year before. Various efforts must have pushed down the number, and the decrease in the number of cars on the street certainly helped. This change shows the possibility that fuel prices can resolve traffic and environment problems to a great extent.

So, here’s an idea. How about raising the fuel prices even higher? What will happen if oil prices are fixed at the level of 3,000 won per liter? Of course, there is no reason to give more money to oil companies. The price could be bumped by way of taxes. The price would be set at 3,000 won per liter and even if international oil prices go down, consumers would pay more tax, increasing tax revenue.

In a broader sense, this method would make those who benefit shoulder the economic burden. Those who pay for expensive fuel and drive their own cars get the benefit of traveling in a pleasant way, in the same way drivers who use Namsan Tunnel during rush hour pay tolls. As they are able to save time and fuel by traveling through the tunnel, they are subject to extra fees.

One problem with fixed oil prices is that the measure could damage the livelihoods of working-class, low-income people who need to drive to make money. They should be allowed discounts. According to their income levels, they should get coupons for gas. Resources for this measure can be found in the increased tax revenues. The rest of the taxpayers’ money can be invested in making public transportation more convenient and easier to use.

This way, traffic will become better, energy will be saved and pollution will be reduced. Of course, ordinary citizens who can’t get coupons for oil and only have to pay heavy taxes will oppose the idea. They will likely criticize the plan, saying it’s only for the rich. However, considering the environment and energy issues, it can be a good idea to increase oil prices to the extent that people are truly shocked. In fact, not many big cities in the world have as good a public transport system as Korea. One can get nearly everywhere without the need for a car.

By the way, these days an increasing number of people just walk for their health. Leave your car at home and take a walk with your friends or family. It will help the environment, and it will also help you.

*The writer is the economic news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Shim Shang-bok
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