[Outlook]Firing up the green engine

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[Outlook]Firing up the green engine

When international oil prices suddenly topped $100, alarm bells went off in Korea, as we import 100 percent of the oil we use. My colleagues and I were asked to only drive to work every other day, making it very inconvenient to commute. I understand that we need to save the environment and preserve energy, but I feel helpless when I see an endless line of people waiting for the bus. During the rush-hour press on public transit, I wonder how much energy I really save by not driving my car, looking for any excuse to get back behind the wheel.

I start thinking about how it’s more important to reform industries that consume huge amounts of energy and are vulnerable to international oil prices, rather than inconveniencing ordinary citizens.

In his Liberation Day speech, President Lee Myung-bak said that he would pursue sustainable, environmentally friendly development by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. This is a new tack for an administration that not long ago was pushing for a large-scale civil engineering project that would damage the environment - the cross-country waterway.

It makes sense to develop energy-efficient vehicles that can compete on the global market and green houses that don’t waste energy. It’s good that the president will abandon his growth-first policy. But how exactly can our economy grow while releasing less carbon dioxide?

The automobile, steel and shipbuilding industries, our economy’s key growth engines, consume a great deal of energy. These sectors are facing fierce competition from overseas, and have limits in their future potential. Even though we lack energy, we are accustomed to a lifestyle that consumes a lot of energy for transport, housing, heating and lighting.

Under these circumstances, pursuing green growth through low emissions is a must, not a choice. In 2013, it will be mandatory for us to reduce how much greenhouse gas we emit, according to the convention on climate change.

The government has recently revealed a plan to significantly improve energy efficiency by 2030, to increase the ratio of independent oil and gas development to 40 percent, and to raise the percentage of reusable energy to 11 percent. Despite such efforts, energy demand will go on increasing. The government says 11 new nuclear power plants need to be built to meet the demand.

It’s good that the government will work to find new industries by developing new green technologies, and to make our society consume less energy in response to the world’s efforts to cut down carbon dioxide emissions.

But if the percentage of nuclear power is to be increased from 36 percent to 59 percent, the response from citizens won’t be positive. Environmental organizations have been critical about nuclear energy because the issues of waste and security have yet to be clearly resolved. But people don’t seem entirely opposed to nuclear power, because it supplies electricity more steadily and reduces the amount of CO2 we release.

However, there are concerns that in increasing the ratio of nuclear energy, we will overrate its economic merits. In the past, serious conflict with residents was caused in the process of selecting dump sites for nuclear waste. The same type of conflict will arise again if more nuclear power plants are built. The supply and cost of raw materials are constantly changing and are therefore hard to predict. It will be much better to use a variety of energy resources than to depend on a single one.

For now, huge sums of the state budget, which means taxpayer money, will have to be poured into the pursuit of green, low-emission development, as we do not yet have the infrastructure for this type of energy and it lacks economic efficiency for the time being.

Fostering key green development industries means supporting certain companies, and there should be a social consensus on providing such support.

Our lifestyle consumes more energy than European countries or Japan. A change can’t be achieved simply by developing new technologies. Citizens need to voluntarily participate in the move.

In 1995, our country introduced a fee system that was proportional to the amount of waste produced, and it proved successful. It was an unparalleled case of citizen participation.

To get people involved, there should first be more space for participation. The public doesn’t trust green growth yet and the government’s attempts to tame its critics won’t help build that trust.

To pursue green development that integrates society, people must participate in the process.

In so doing, a consensus will form and attitudes will change. Only then will citizens use public transport more often and make voluntary efforts to save energy.

As the current administration took office with a pledge to achieve a national per capita income of $40,000, it may be obsessed with growth. But it should realize that blind growth doesn’t necessarily bring happiness to the people.

*The writer is a professor at the School of Biological and Chemical Engineering at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Yoon Je-yong
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