[Viewpoint] Energy issue heats up

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[Viewpoint] Energy issue heats up

It must have been right after the oil shock in the early 1970s when I saw President Park Chung Hee on television at an electronics store on my way back from school. He was holding an egg in his hand and giving a speech in his piercing voice.

“The price is suddenly rising, but if citizens work together, we can overcome the crisis. If every citizen eats one less egg per day, the price of eggs is bound to fall. However, if someone buys eggs in bulk, the price will rise and we will have to suffer. The haves and the elite class must make an example. I am going to be frugal myself.”

These are the words of the president delivered to me as an elementary school student. I might not remember every single word because it’s been almost 40 years. However, I vividly recall the message. I thought, “The nation is in a crisis, but if we all live frugally and share the pain, we can be prosperous.”

The president’s address might have been a one-way moral lesson, but it made sense. Even a young boy like me was convinced. The grown-ups who were watching TV with me nodded in assent. Cooperation of the citizens contributed largely to Korea’s timely escape from the oil shock. Such unity could be possible only at a time when everyone was poor and saving money was the greatest virtue.

What about today? Upon returning from the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last weekend, President Lee Myung-bak said that it was too hot in the Blue House. “Why is the temperature above 20 degrees Celsius [68 degrees Fahrenheit] in the Blue House? Set the temperature so that it never goes over 19 degrees, no matter what.” Staff immediately lowered the heating to 18 degrees. The Blue House is now an “under 19 degrees” zone.

As a solution to global warming, President Lee emphasized “me first” in Copenhagen. And the “under 19 degrees” campaign is the first action in the “me first” approach. Park Chung Hee’s “exemplary act” and “one less egg” have evolved into Lee Myung-bak’s “me first” and “under 19 degrees” over the past 40 years.

However, people have reacted in different ways this time. Lee Myung-bak’s “me first” was greatly welcomed in the international stage, but domestic response was not so favorable. Some were cynical that the president was just pretending. The times have changed so much that an exemplary act of the president can change the future of the nation. However, we should not step back. Global warming is the challenge of our time. We need to tackle it with more sophisticated and realistic solutions.

The solution is obvious. First of all, energy prices should be raised, especially electricity and gas charges. A U.S. study shows that the electricity consumption decreased by 7 percent when electricity charges were raised by 1 cent per kilowatt. The Blue House is working to make electricity and gas charges more realistic. The government is on the right track, but more effort is required.

President Lee has ordered an increase in energy prices to reflect a more realistic cost but not to burden the working classes too much. It is not desirable to emphasize the working class; it could obscure the direction of the policy.

Past administrations have excused the working class for nearly 40 years. Electricity has been provided at a rate lower than the cost, and the deficit has been set off by taxpayers. The Korea Electric Power Corporation has a 2 trillion won ($1.70 billion) deficit every year, and the accumulated debt is over 26 trillion won as of 2008.

A low electricity rate has considerably distorted the energy usage structure. Major heating systems are now powered by electricity. Oil stoves, which produce odor and are inconvenient to use, have long been replaced by electric heaters.

The Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries encourages farmers to use electric power when growing crops and produce. When crude petroleum is changed into electricity, 58 percent of energy is lost. However, if you use oil directly for heating, you only lose 20 percent of energy. The energy loss adds up to 1 trillion won every year.

Low electricity rates benefit the rich and corporations more. If a working-class citizen gets 10 won as a subsidy, a rich man will get 20 won and a company will be provided with over 40 won. Industrial and agricultural rates are far cheaper than the general household rate.

Green growth and a green future are possible if we correct the distorted energy structure. The government might want to consider raising the energy rate and distribute electricity and gas coupons to those whose income falls below a certain level. Global warming might be the last chance. If we fail, keeping the temperature at 19 degrees might become a luxury in the Blue House.

*The writer is the business news editor of the JoongAng Sunday.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Yi Jung-jae
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