[Viewpoint] The rough road to Copenhagen

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[Viewpoint] The rough road to Copenhagen

‘For one day a week, every citizen will take the day off from work. On this designated day, everyone has to refrain from using electricity or gas or driving. Everyone needs to turn off the air conditioner and television and stay home all day. And everyone has to live this way once a week for five years.” It sounds impossible, but that’s what Japan needs to do in order to achieve the goals set by the Kyoto Protocol, wrote Kei Kitamura in his book, “Carbon is Money.”

Japan might have been too ambitious when it set its goal. In December 1997, the United Nations Convention on Climate Change was held in Kyoto. Representatives from 169 member countries agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5 percent by 2012 from the 1990 level. But Japan went a little too far and set a goal to reduce 6 percent, 1 percent more than the international average. Then-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto insisted that as the hosting country, Japan needed to pledge 6 percent while industries expressed concern over losing their competitive edge against the United States and Korea.

Despite 10 years of endeavor, Japan is failing miserably. Instead of reducing by 6 percent, greenhouse gas emissions increased by 6.4 percent instead. The principal offender was not industry but households. While industries have overachieved in terms of reductions, households produced 37 percent more greenhouse gases. For example, companies invented energy-efficient air conditioner models, but households that used to have one AC for the entire house purchased an AC for each room.

Japan plans to buy carbon emission credits to make up for the amount of greenhouse gas emissions it has failed to reduce. About 2 trillion yen ($22.39 billion) will be collected in environment taxes every year.

That’s it for our neighbor’s story. Now, we need to look at Korea’s situation. Korea will debut at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen on Dec. 7. At the summit, countries will discuss the reduction of greenhouse gases after 2013. President Lee Myung-bak, a self-proclaimed “green evangelist,” is highly motivated. He voluntarily pledged to cut emissions more and promoted Korea as an early mover.

But the danger is that since Korea needs to prove itself as the host of the G-20 summit next year, we might go too far, like Japan.

President Lee finalized the plan to be presented in Copenhagen. It includes a reduction of greenhouse gases by 4 percent from the 2005 level by 2020. It is the most aggressive plan among the options proposed by the Green Growth Committee. Concerned voices from industry on national competitiveness were ignored. A government official said the reduction in the industrial sector was minimized to 9 percent of the total reduction goal, adding we might be pushing too far.

The government has reason to be aggressive. Just as GE Chairman Jeffrey Immelt said, “Green is green.” We are living in an era when people favor low-carbon products. In order to break through the environmental regulations and barriers of developed countries, Korea needs to carry out a green revolution first.

However, the government’s decision is missing the national consensus. Such an ambitious national goal can only succeed if the general public is behind it. In order to garner national support, the government needs to publicly discuss the issue and release relevant information. It needs to appeal to people over and over again. The public will go green only when they are fully convinced. However, the government has been doing just the opposite. An insider at the Green Growth Committee claims that there had been over 70 hearings, discussions and meetings and opinions have been included. However, industry argues that they were not given the chance to speak up at these meetings. Instead of making information public, the government worked hard to keep it confidential. When asked about the burden of the reduction plan, the government simply responded that each household will share a 210,000 won ($182) cost. It is drastically different from 1.44 million won estimated by a civilian research institute, but the government does not explain how the number has been calculated. When asked about the allotments for each sector, the government insists that the information is confidential for any country.

The road to Copenhagen is rough and narrow, but it will change not just the economy but the world. So we need to be ready before we set off. But the outcome is obvious when Koreans continue to favor big cars, use heat generously to wear short sleeves in winter and turn on the air conditioner around the clock. Japan is known for its frugal and economical lifestyle, but it failed because the citizens were not informed and convinced.

*The writer is the business news editor of the JoongAng Sunday.

by Yi Jung-jae

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