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8 December 2020

Three steps to South Korean climate-neutrality

South Korea finally joined the climate neutrality club in October 2020. Now, it is time to turn the pledge into action. If the country acts now, its increasing soft power could pull other countries along.

The “Korean wave” (한류 or Hallyu) has become a global phenomenon. K-dramas first spread across Southeast Asia in the 1990s. Then, K-pop artists swept the globe. In 2012, “Gangnam Style” was the first video to have a billion views on YouTube. In 2019, The Parasite (directed by Bong Jun-ho) was widely considered the best film of the year. Even in the policy landscape, Korea’s non-violent ‘candlelight demonstration’ of 2016 drew international praise as an example of participatory democracy. And this year, the Korean quarantine system has (fingers crossed…) successfully managed the corona virus so far.

No wonder other countries increasingly look to South Korea for best practices. The country’s soft power rides the crest of the Korean wave. Korea’s cultural influence makes the country’s climate neutrality pledge by 2050 all the more important: In October, South Korean President Moon Jae-in pledged carbon neutrality by 2050 . The task is daunting, but there are ways it can be done.

The hidden challenges to Koreas climate neutrality

In the 1950s, Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. Today, it is an advanced economy: the eleventh largest in the world and sixth in terms of exports. But while the climate pledge is encouraging, the country’s climate action performance is disappointing. Korean GHG emissions, particularly from energy and industry, have increased, while renewable energy deployment ranks near the bottom worldwide.

The Achilles' heel is emissions from export-oriented industry. For instance, Korean industry consumes more than 35 percent of total final electricity and is totally dependent on government subsidized conventional electricity sources such as nuclear and coal power.

Energy efficient plays little role. Electricity prices are well below the world’s average, making Korean industry more competitive globally. But how will Korean industry deal with the carbon border taxes proposed by the EU and voluntary actions of global industry sector initiatives such as RE100. The Biden Administration is likely to accelerate such climate-related international regulatory regimes. Then, Korea will face at least two difficult situations: hard-to-reach climate neutrality and decreasing global competitiveness.

The steps up to now

President Moon Jae-in’s administration has already paved the way to an energy transition, although the targets lacked ambition.

If you are wondering what “external emission reductions” are: Korea will invest abroad (Kyoto-style) in reducing emissions internationally. Right now, however, South Korea remains a major financier of coal power plants in the region, including around 8 GW of coal power plants in Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. KEPCO (Korea Electric Power Corporation) also recently approved the financing of Java 9 and 10 in Indonesia and Vung Ang 2 in Vietnam.

There has been recent progress, however. The manifesto Moon’s ruling Democratic Party announced in March 2020 included the idea of a Green New Deal (aka K-Deal). Remarkably, the strong civil society in Korea managed to get all 226 local governments to declare a climate emergency in June 2020; the National Assembly followed suit with a climate emergency resolution in September 2020. This wave reached its peak when the President announced climate neutrality by 2050 one month later and called for a reexamination of existing plan and policies.

And the region is starting to rethink as well: The day of Moon Jae-In’s climate pledge, Philippine energy secretary Alfonso Cusi announced a moratorium on new greenfield coal projects and pushed for a transition towards cleaner energy sources.

What does South Korea do now?

As the UN Secretary-General’s spokesperson stated just after the Moon’s carbon neutrality pledge,  the government must have more concrete mid-term measures. Here are three steps:

  1. The country must strengthen its NDC and have a more ambitious 2030 emission reduction target. The Green New Deal needs to have a longer lifespan, diversified projects, and a bigger budget.
  2. The power sector needs effective carbon and air pollution pricing mechanisms. A clearly defined coal phase-out plan is also essential to reduce carbon emissions at lower costs for consumers. In addition, a study done by Agora and GESI found that increasing the renewable energy target to 30% in 2030 is a no-regret measure to reduce emissions.
  3. Decarbonizing industry is the most crucial factor for Korean carbon neutrality. Korean industry is very strong in IT, machinery and electronics. It can decarbonize if the government sends sticks and carrots.

Continue the Hallyu

Korean artists may make it look easy, but their performances are the result of systematic planning and meticulous implementation. Korea needs that dedication in climate policy now. The world, and emerging states in particular, are carefully watching Korea. Maybe Korean policymakers should learn a lesson from Korean artists successful the world over: hard work can lead to a wonderful performance.