By Gary Lamphier, Edmonton Journal
North Americans are dreamers, and for the most part, we seem to like it that way.
We want it all: a pristine environment, wonderful schools and hospitals, cheap gas, great jobs, low taxes, vacuous celebrities to amuse us, and of course, a minimum of dirty, ugly industry.
Our concept of the ideal urban environment — Vancouver — is one where real industry doesn’t exist, only buffed Olympians, beautiful beaches and mountains, and house prices that only go up, so they can be used as ATMs.
South Koreans don’t indulge much in such childish fantasies. Steeled by a long history of oppression, war and deprivation, they come across as industrious, hard-nosed realists.
While North Americans dream, play games with obscure financial instruments, send most of their factory jobs offshore and rack up fat debts to pass on to their kids, Koreans roll up their sleeves and make stuff the world wants and needs — from cars to cellphones, computer chips, flat-screen TVs and even nuclear power plants.
OK, I realize this is a sweeping generalization, based on one short trip to Korea. But I see plenty of evidence to back it up.
Consider our childish attempts to grapple with carbon emissions, and their presumed effect on climate change.
Whether you believe human-caused global warming is a crisis or not — and I confess, I’m still skeptical — it’s obvious that North Americans are far better at talking about it than doing anything practical to address it.
We build grain-fed ethanol plants that do nothing for the planet, but make farmers rich. We dream up elaborate carbon cap-and-trade schemes that even George Soros agrees will do nothing but further enrich Wall Street bankers.
And we construct unreliable windmills and solar farms that boost our energy costs, make our industries less competitive, and which collectively produce a tiny fraction of our overall energy needs.
And where do we get the components? Well, from countries that actually produce stuff — countries like Korea, China, Malaysia and Denmark.
One solar power plant in the Arizona desert that received funds under President Barack Obama’s much-touted green jobs scheme employs a grand total of 70 Americans. Meanwhile, the Chinese plant that made the components for it employs 11,000 workers.
Atop Grouse Mountain in North Vancouver, just a stone’s throw from the troubled Olympic snowboarding venue at Cypress Mountain, sits Greater Vancouver’s only wind turbine.
You read that correctly. For all its supposedly green credentials, Canada’s Olympic city boasts one — count ‘ em — one wind turbine. It produces no power for neighbouring residents, but it does generate a quarter of the power used at Grouse Mountain itself.
As for the turbine’s three 37-metre blades, each of which weighs 12,000 pounds, they were shipped, then airlifted to the top of the mountain by helicopter, all the way from Denmark, where they were made.
In Ontario, the province recently cut a massive $7-billion deal with Korea’s Samsung Group, which will build and operate wind and solar farms there for the next 20 years. Samsung and its partner, Korea Electric Power Corp. (KEPCO), even received a $437-million sweetener from the province to create local manufacturing jobs.
Not hard to see who is getting the most out of that deal. Whether it actually leads to meaningful cuts in Ontario’s carbon emissions remains to be seen.
In South Korea, meanwhile, the government of President Lee Myung-bak is taking a diff erent, far more practical approach.
Although Korea didn’t sign on to the Kyoto accord — thus avoiding the orgy of self-flagellation that’s occurred in Canada — Lee vows to slash his country’s carbon emissions by a staggering 30 per cent within a decade.
Since Koreans love big cars — you won’t find may subcompacts on the streets of Seoul, which are clogged with comfy midsize sedans and SUVs — one might wonder how he could set such a bold target. Well, it’s simple, really.
Lee aims to ramp up the country’s use of nuclear power to about 55 per cent. It already generates about 40 per cent of Korea’s current electricity needs. Can you imagine that happening in nuke-phobic North America? Not a chance.
Oh, yes. And he’s also leveraging KEPCO’s growing expertise to sell its nuclear reactors around the world. Thanks in no small part to Lee’s personal lobbying, KEPCO just cut a $20-billion-US deal to build and operate a series of nuclear power plants in the United Arab Emirates, trumping competing bids from the U.S. and France.
Lee sees it as the start of a major global push to build Korean reactors around the world. Just as Hyundai Motor now ranks among the world’s top five carmakers, and Samsung ranks among the world’s top electronics companies, watch for KEPCO to make its mark as countries like China and India expand their use of nuclear power.
It’s the same story in high-speed rail, where Korea now ranks as a world leader, alongside Japan and France.
In May, Korea and China are expected to go head-to-head for the right to build a $17.4-billion-US high-speed rail line between the Brazilian cities of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Campinas. It’s to be completed in time for the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.
After having a close-up look at how Korean industry operates, I wouldn’t bet against them. We can dream all we want about a better world, but the Koreans will build it.