[Viewpoint] Ushering in a post-carbon era

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[Viewpoint] Ushering in a post-carbon era

To the hasty-minded Korean, a discussion of what lies 30 or 50 years ahead is as useless as a lecture on preventive health tips to a patient in need of immediate surgery. It may draw yawns, or even more likely, a look of incredulity. But a vision is like a compass. To know the right direction is actually even more necessary when in a hurry. This is why presidential hopefuls are asked about their visions for the future. They must be ready to answer first their vision for post-unification and second green policy. They should be able to expound on how Korea can turn eco-friendly in brilliant new green ways to push for a future free of carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases.

In July 1909, Frenchman Louis Bleriot flew over the English Channel in a tractor-style monoplane powered by a 25-horsepower engine. Earlier this month, Swiss-born inventor and adventurer Betrand Piccard flew a jumbo jet 768 kilometers (477 miles) from Madrid to Rabat, the capital of Morocco, on 12,000 solar cells feeding four electric motor propellers. On the same day, June 5, Boeing tested a hydrogen-powered unmanned aircraft that emitted nothing more than water. The latest technology boasted zero release of carbon or other harmful fossil fuel gases.

Paris has been experimenting with “Autolib,” a car-sharing scheme derived from a successful bike rental program, allowing four-seat electric cars to be picked up and dropped off at 1,100 rental recharge stations around Paris and adjacent suburbs. The city plans to increase the electric cars for rentals from a current 1,700 to 3,000 by the end of the year. Automakers around the world are competing heavily in the developing and marketing of eco-friendly batteries or hydrogen cars.

To respond to climate changes that could jeopardize humanity and our planet, we must try to emit less greenhouse gas. Fossil fuels like oil, coal and gas are running short. Shifting to alternative and renewable energies like solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric and biomass is no longer a choice but a necessity for humanity.

Jeremy Rifkin, a professor at the Wharton School, foretells how new energies will rewrite economic paradigms, pointing out that great economic revolutions in history occur when new communication technologies converge with new energy systems.

In the 19th century, steam-powered print technology carried on coal-fired rail infrastructure gave birth to the first Industrial Revolution. In the 20th century, electronic communications - the telephone, radio and television - became the medium to pave the way for the oil-powered auto age and second Industrial Revolution.

In the 21st century, the merger of Internet technology and renewable energies could create a powerful infrastructure for a new industrial revolution that would change the world. Traditional power from fossil fuels has been organized and distributed from top to bottom. But the “energy Internet” is something different: unleashed collaborative power that could fundamentally restructure relations from top to bottom, to side to side. The idea of people sharing distributed energy in an open commons can create unfathomable value as well as hundreds of thousands of new businesses and jobs.

Rifkin lists five pillars to set the grounds for the third revolution: shifting to renewable energy, equipping buildings on every continent with micro-power plant facilities to collect renewable energy, deploying technologies to store intermittent energies, using Internet technology to transform the power grid into an energy-sharing smart interactive power grid that sells or shares electricity on-site, and transitioning transportation vehicles to electric plug-in vehicles. That day will arrive soonest in the European Union, which is most advanced in green energy sources.

The European Union would need to spend 1 trillion euros ($1.25 trillion) by 2020 to shift power infrastructure to a digitalized electric grid and accommodate renewable energy. Following the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster, the Democratic Party of Japan pledged to raise the country’s share of renewable energies to 40 percent by 2030. Japanese telecom company Softbank Chairman Masayoshi Son envisions cross-border supergrid structures straddling several Asian countries based on solar and wind power from Mongolian deserts.

President Lee Myung-bak and his government have put low carbon green growth on the national agenda, employing efforts to address climate change and environmental problems as new driving forces for sustainable economic growth. But if he were genuinely committed to the goal, he could have used some of the multibillion-dollar budget that went to dams and renovations of the four major rivers to develop and produce renewable energies.

Rifkin believes Korea could be among the frontrunners in paving the way for the third Industrial Revolution based on a renewable energy regime loaded by buildings, stored in the form of hydrogen, distributed via smart grids and connected to zero-emission transport. It is in an advantageous position surrounded by the sea with a dense population and the world’s top Internet infrastructure. It is also advanced in battery and solar power technology. We just need a leader with the vision and capacity to usher in a post-carbon era and an energy revolution in this land.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Bae Myung-bok
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