Monday, July 17, 2006

just how energy-wasteful are America and Korea?

The question was prompted by a provocative phrase in GMJ's fart post: workplace, like most office spaces in the affluent, energy-hungry, oil-guzzling, pollution-spewing, Iraq-invading United States of America, has excessive air conditioning...

I wrote him a "Bitch, please" comment:

I'll agree with "Iraq-invading," since I was against the war, but don't get me started about who wastes more energy, punk! Everywhere I turn here in Seoul, I see air conditioners on full blast with windows wide open, and diesel-chugging vehicles farting their noxious fumes into the air, trying to catch up with China. Riddle me that.

As for your farticular insights... I humbly bow to your superior knowledge. When I get back to America, I'll have to perform some gastric experiments of my own. That's the essence of the scientific method: repeatability and verifiability, ja?
But GMJ's no dummy. Unimpressed at my attempt at conciliation through flattery, he donned his no-nonsense engineering hat and shot back:

Nice try, Kevin Kim. See here, here, and here, for instance. "Consumption" doesn't necessarily mean "waste," of course, but I'll leave that to the Big Ho to worry about.

As you know, GMJ and I are, respectively, Jedi and Sith, so I am duty-bound to see evil prevail. I wrote GMJ the following reply:

The second link was interesting:

Korea, Rep KOR 4,131.8
United States USA 7,920.9

I wonder what the consumption curve was from 1953 to the present. I'd give South Korea another decade or so to catch up with the US. Heh. As Agent Smith said to Neo: "It is innnnnevitable."

The first link is probably most damning for the US and the hardest to argue against. The third link is also interesting and more open to interpretation (lies, damned lies, and statistics, as Mark Twain says) given how it ranks America and what countries it places before it-- but you're right: consumption is not waste. So let's go looking at trends in waste, pollution, etc., and see what's happening in those areas, and what the trends have been over the past 50 years. I have no doubt America won't come out looking rosy, but I also doubt that America will look like the all-consuming monster it's caricatured as, mainly because the science to argue pro and con is so politically motivated.

However, I doubt I'd win an argument about energy waste as things stand now: Americans, especially under a Republican presidency, generally like to buy their big-ass gas guzzlers, and I've been arguing on my blog that we're too beholden to other countries for our energy. The gas guzzler argument alone is enough to keep me from screeching too loudly. While not a greenie myself, I do believe the environmentalists have a point: we aren't doing ourselves any favors with our huge cars.

The problem in Korea, though, is that, in its race to catch up with the other economic bigwigs, it's making a lot of the same mistakes, and doing so in a compressed time frame. If anything, I'd respectfully advise this country to follow a very different path from the American one. There's a lot of pioneering science going on here, and Dr. Hwang notwithstanding, I think Korea is entirely capable of discovering an alternative fuel source that could revolutionize how we think about fuel, waste, etc. It may play into a stereotype to say this, but this country is full of brilliant minds and hard workers. Discoveries are waiting to be made.

Having conceded all that, however, I'm still gonna berate your countrymen for not understanding that you have to SHUT THE DAMN WINDOW when your A/C is on. Christ!


PS: In fairness, I do have an American buddy in Pennsylvania who does the same thing with his car's A/C: he rolls down the window, turns the A/C on full-blast, and rides along that way in the summertime. Irrational. And if he's doing it, then it's likely that plenty of other Americans are, too.

...but this wasn't enough. I became honestly curious about the question of energy waste and how, exactly, one might measure it. We Americans claim, for example, that things have improved since, oh, the 1970s. On what basis do we make this claim?

It turns out that Google searches on energy waste lead to nothing meaningful. Try it yourself: click here. It's just as fruitless to search for "energy waste index"-- see?

Then I realized that I might be looking at the problem from the wrong end. How about looking up energy efficiency? This turned out to be better, but I'm now clued in to the sheer difficulty of trying to define and approach such a concept.

According to the above-linked Department of Energy site, the measurement of a country's energy efficiency depends on quite a few factors. Here are the first three paragraphs of the article:

The development of energy-efficiency indictors, for any country, is limited by the availability of data. Data are limited for several reasons. As the amount of data collected increases so do the costs of collecting, processing, and analyzing the data. The configuration of certain technologies and processes can also limit the possibility of obtaining microdata. As an example, in the manufacturing sector, some motors are encased in such a way that it is impossible to collect data on the motor unless records have been maintained for the motor. This leads to another reason data are limited--respondent burden. Care has to be taken so that surveys are not so long that participation is discouraged or inaccurate answers are given due to the difficulty and time it takes to obtain the data.

Additionally, when international comparisons are desired, structural, behavioral, and economic differences add to the difficulty of developing comparative indicators. Data availability is a particular problem when trying to undertake cross-country comparisons. Each country has its own unique survey forms, measures of energy, definitions, etc. that make the comparisons difficult. In many countries and especially in the emerging economies, very limited data are collected in the first place and there are no funds to increase the amount of data collected. Even a simple indicator such as energy per gross domestic product is difficult to use in cross-country comparisons--countries have different measures of energy, currencies, and income accounting.

Defining energy efficiency is a difficult task. As you can see, measuring changes in energy efficiency is even more difficult. Can we develop an indicator or set of indictors that will truly represent only the changes in energy efficiency? Probably not.

So at the moment, I have no concrete figures to offer you. I'll stop here and see what more I can find out about this topic, which I find fascinating (if for no other reason than that it seems filled with hocus-pocus).

I admit I was a bit unfair in how I passed judgement on Seoul's pollution: things have improved here since the 1990s, when I used to get black boogers in the summertime. All my boogers now are a healthy green/yellow/white. While Seoul is no one's idea of a Biosphere-like energy-efficient haven (hell, even the Biosphere isn't such a haven), I can't say it's as bad as Mexico City.

We'll be back, GMJ. Like a weird lump on the tip of your penis, the Sith always come back!


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