[Column] South Korea’s green paradox

Posted on : 2021-12-06 18:18 KST Modified on : 2021-12-06 18:18 KST
South Korea may be a green place, but a large-scale shift in its economy will be necessary for real progress
John Feffer
John Feffer
By John Feffer, author and co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies

Korea is a very green place. I’ve enjoyed the semi-tropical delights of Jeju Island. I’ve hiked in several national parks and visited organic farms. Even in traffic-filled Seoul, I’ve walked along the Cheonggyecheon Stream and climbed up to the Golden Temple of Bukhansan Mountain.

Korea is also one of the few countries in the world to put a Green New Deal at the heart of government policy. The country is home to both the Green Climate Fund and the Global Green Growth Institute. Korean environmental organizations are strong and effective.

Still, South Korea is not very green in its practice.

In 2020, Korea was the ninth largest emitter of carbon in the world. It is also the ninth-largest consumer of energy in the world, most of it imported. In the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the world’s wealthiest nations, South Korea has the lowest share of renewable energy in its mix at 2.3%. South Korea has also been a key player in promoting fossil fuels around the world. Until recently, it was financing coal-fired power plants, particularly in Southeast Asia.

In some ways, South Korea is moving in the right direction. After a sustained campaign of civic activism, the South Korean government finally announced this year that it would no longer finance overseas coal-fired plants. The Moon Jae-in government also pledged last month in the lead-up to the Glasgow climate meeting that it would, by 2030, reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 2018 levels on the way to becoming carbon neutral in 2050. It has also promised to increase wind and solar energy production by more than double by 2025.

All of this is good, up to a point. But the South Korean government doesn’t have a particularly good track record of keeping its promises around the environment. The Lee Myung-bak administration, with its Green Growth program, tried to have it both ways: sustained economic expansion and increased environmental protection. It didn’t work very well. Moon Jae-in’s Green New Deal isn’t a whole lot different from this earlier effort.

Today, many European countries argue that it’s possible to decouple growth from carbon emissions. And it’s true that if you look at Denmark’s trajectory since 1995, it has managed to grow its economy and substantially reduce emissions. But Denmark derives nearly all of its electricity from renewable energy. And it has largely outsourced all of its carbon-intensive sourcing and manufacturing to poorer countries. This outsourcing strategy of climate-friendly countries threatens to create a new global divide between the “clean” and the “dirty.”

So Korea needs not only to radically increase its commitment to renewable energy, it has to reevaluate its role in the global fossil fuel economy. South Korea is no longer financing overseas coal projects, but it didn’t join the 20 countries that agreed in Glasgow to end public financing of all overseas fossil fuel projects by the end of 2022.

At home, South Korea needs to reevaluate its domestic energy situation. Currently, Korea is home to three of the largest oil refineries in the world: the SK Energy complex in Ulsan, the GS Caltex refinery in Yeosu, and the joint project of Aramco and Hanjin also in Ulsan. It also has three of the top seven coal-fired power plants in the world. These and other facilities have created a powerful lobbying force in Korean society that has made a transformation of the energy infrastructure very difficult.

For many years, South Korea invested in nuclear energy as a replacement for foreign oil and gas. It currently provides about one-quarter of the country’s electricity. Moon Jae-in ran on an anti-nuclear energy platform but has since embraced nuclear power as a way to reduce carbon emissions and maintain economic growth.’’

But nuclear energy is not carbon-neutral. When factoring in the entire life cycle of a nuclear power plant—construction, operation, transport of spent fuel, decommissioning—such facilities produce three to four times as much carbon emissions as solar panels across their lifespan. Moreover, nuclear plants are considerably more expensive to construct than renewable sources like wind and solar

A large-scale shift in the nature of the Korean economy — and the role of growth in the economy — will be necessary in the near future. This will be the task of the younger generation, who have the most to lose from the overheated world of the future. This generation, which has participated in street demonstrations and pressure campaigns to stop the financing of overseas coal plants, is not so beholden to the growth-at-all-costs perspective of their elders.

So perhaps the more fundamental question is: Will South Korea allow these young people to sit in the political driver’s seat? Can this younger generation overcome the Confucian bias in favor of older leaders to steer South Korea in a fundamentally different direction?

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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