Green growth advocate hopes for bigger changes from the Copenhagen conference

Rae Kwon Chung glanced out the window of a terrace restaurant, down at hundreds of diplomats in suits and activists in T-shirts who milled happily in a grand atrium of Copenhagen’s Bella Center. He frowned.

His green tea cooled in the cup, barely sipped.

“They’re all obsessed with the deal and numbers,” South Korea’s climate-change ambassador said, explaining his frustrations with the negotiators and advocates assembled here to discuss carbon-emission cuts and forge what could be a landmark treaty on global warming.

“In order to make this numbers game work, we have to agree on how to have a global paradigm shift.”

By which he meant this: World leaders need to rethink some fundamentals of daily life -- tax structures, transportation patterns and, most of all, the very notion that cheaper energy is better for economic growth. All to capture what he calls the opportunity of renewable energy technology.

Chung is 55, with splashes of gray in his hair and a blue striped shirt and tie under his sweater vest. He is a godfather of the so-called green growth movement, which, in defiance of decades of economic theory, holds that countries can boost their wealth by reducing the emissions that scientists say cause global warming.

He is concerned that negotiators in Copenhagen have gotten their climate priorities exactly backward, arguing over dates and levels of emission cuts instead of asking one another: How can we work together to change the way we consume energy -- and make some money in the process?

Chung has been active in climate negotiations since they began internationally in 1991. For most of that time, he said, negotiators saw emission reduction as a trade-off that would force nations to sacrifice economic growth.

But some years ago, while working for the United Nations, Chung noticed that South Korea and its Asia-Pacific neighbors shared a problem: Each country spent billions of dollars to import oil from the Middle East. Money down the drain, he thought, echoing U.S. politicians who have wrestled with energy-dependence issues for decades.

Instead of just seeing a problem, Chung saw a market.

To cut their fossil-fuel use and carbon emissions, he reasoned, Asia-Pacific countries would need to invent more efficient energy technologies. If the rest of the world decided to cut emissions as well, those countries would have something valuable to sell.

To promote the development of those new technologies, Chung urged government leaders to overhaul some of their most fundamental policies.

He pushed them to reduce income taxes and increase energy taxes to encourage efficiency, to invest heavily in public transportation and to embrace the idea that higher energy prices would create jobs, not kill them, by seeding new industries.

A wide array of economists and politicians reject Chung’s basic premise, particularly in the United States. Studies funded by business and free-market groups project that an emission-limit bill being pushed in Congress by President Obama would raise energy costs by thousands of dollars for the typical American family, stunting national growth.

For example, Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a news release Tuesday that Obama’s emission-limit proposal would “destroy jobs, strangle economic growth and hinder recovery.”

Gradually, though, many world leaders have come around to Chung’s way of thinking. The Asia-Pacific branch of the United Nations, where Chung worked, declared itself in favor of “green growth” in 2005.

The South Korean government followed suit last summer. After doubling its carbon emissions over the last 15 years because of fast development, South Korea pledged to cut emissions over the next 15 years. Officials are pushing for higher energy taxes and reduced income taxes, even though many of the nation’s key industries, such as steel and auto manufacturing, are voracious consumers of energy. The bulk of the nation’s economic stimulus measure went to renewable energy.

“They’re walking the walk” in South Korea, said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, who has worked closely with Chung on climate issues. He said Chung “has had a very big impact in how South Korea views their role” on emission limits, domestically and internationally.

In a long afternoon interview over a back table in the terrace restaurant here, Chung called his philosophy and advocacy “destiny,” the natural outflow of a climate-concerned citizen from a small, energy-intensive country that is still racing to join the ranks of the world’s wealthiest nations.

He said he was encouraged by “green growth” rhetoric from some European nations, Japan and the United States, where Obama has made “clean energy” a focus of his job-creation efforts.

But on a day when the Copenhagen conference buzzed with anger and accusations over a proposed climate treaty framework that poor nations called inadequate -- in part because of how it handles emission reductions -- Chung worried that negotiators were too caught up in details to see the dollar signs before them.

“What we’re negotiating here is the real substance of the real economy,” he said. “We are talking about billions of dollars in real numbers.”