South Korea’s climate envoy has promised “bold” policy changes from Seoul as one of Asia’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters comes under pressure for failing to act more forcefully to combat climate change.
President Moon Jae-in in October pledged that South Korea would achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, following similar moves by the EU, Japan and China.
But the Moon administration’s claims have drawn criticism from environmentalists, who say South Korea has failed to present a robust plan for cutting coal and boosting renewables to the extent needed to meet its obligations under the Paris climate agreement.
Yoo Yeon-chul, South Korea’s ambassador for climate change, said Seoul’s bureaucrats were “making strenuous efforts” to draw up the “ways and means” for reaching the target.
“We will take bold measures in the end,” he told the Financial Times.
Jeehye Park, coal programme director at Solutions for Our Climate, a Seoul-based non-governmental organisation, noted that coal power plants were still being built in South Korea, meaning that use of the fossil fuel might not be phased out until 2054.
Coal accounts for about 40 per cent of South Korea’s electricity generation, and a quarter of national emissions.
Eliminating coal-fired power by the end of the decade would both bring the manufacturing-dependent economy into compliance with the Paris climate accord, and mean that 18,000 fewer people would die prematurely from illness linked to air pollution, according to Climate Analytics, an international research group.
“With the dim future of coal already predicted, going forward with physically detrimental projects, taking away people’s health and expected lifetimes seems ethically wrong,” Park said.
South Korea will host its first major multilateral climate conference this month, the P4G summit. Ahead of the event, Al Gore, the former US vice-president and a leading climate campaigner, wrote to Moon, urging him to act faster.
Under South Korea’s climate plan, last updated in December, the country is set to cut emissions 24.4 per cent from 2017 levels by 2030. But Gore pointed to research showing that cuts of at least 50 per cent were needed for South Korea to remain consistent with a 1.5C global target in the Paris agreement.
Countries signed up to the Paris deal committed to limiting global warming to “well below” 2C, and hopefully to about 1.5C, compared with pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.
“The economic risks of inaction are also accelerating,” Gore warned, noting the imperative to cut emissions “particularly for trade-oriented economies like South Korea that face the prospect of carbon border adjustments”.
Yoo, who has been involved in South Korean climate policy and negotiations since the early 1990s, acknowledged that three decades of Seoul’s environmental policies have ultimately resulted in increased greenhouse gas emissions.
He said an improved climate plan was being developed and would “most probably” be announced at COP26, the global climate conference set to be held in Glasgow in November.
Yoo insisted that South Korea was committed to a “step-by-step” approach, deploying financial and technical assistance and capacity building to help companies in Asia’s fourth-biggest economy switch to a cleaner economy.
He also pointed to the government’s record stimulus package in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which included funds targeted at energy efficiency, renewables and hydrogen technologies, and to Moon’s decision last month to end state banks’ funding for overseas coal projects.
South Korea was the eighth-biggest carbon emitter globally last year, and in Asia the fourth-biggest behind China, India and Japan, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a US-based group.
“From now on, the story will be different,” Yoo said.