Avoiding the worst effects of climate change requires all countries to drastically transform their economies and societies, not releasing any emissions by 2050, according to the Paris Agreement signed in 2015.
With that goal in mind, South Korea is moving forward with an ambitious climate change policy, which President Moon Jae-in has called the country’s Green New Deal – imitating the wording used in some European countries and in the United States.
The plan, which proposes developing large-scale renewable energy projects, phasing out coal operations, and even a carbon tax, won’t be easy to implement. Up until recently, the country has been following energy policies that run completely counter to such an initiative.
“When we talk about the Green New Deal and trying to redirect Korea, it can seem a stunningly ambitious exercise,” Melissa Brown, the director of Energy Finance Studies, Asia at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, told CNA.
For South Korea, the largest challenge is probably changing its energy matrix, which now relies 44% on coal. Non-nuclear renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, only accounts for 2% of the energy matrix.
The Paris Agreement, signed in 2015, asked governments to make climate pledges to reduce their emissions. In the case of South Korea, the country committed to a 37% reduction by 2030 – a goal considered “highly insufficient” by Climate Action Tracker.
A report by Greenpeace ranked South Korea has the third-highest polluter in the world per capita, the fourth largest importer of coal and the third biggest expenditure in overseas coal plants. All this would have to be news of the past for South Korea if it follows its Green New Deal.
According to Brown, state energy companies are the ones to blame, as they haven’t pushed for a shift to renewables. “They weren’t looking for change, and as change completely restructured global power markets, now they’re really caught out,” she highlighted.
A report by Carbon Tracker, a financial think tank, showed South Korea has $106 billion of potentially stranded assets – the highest of the 34 countries modeled globally. This means the country is filled with infrastructure that will eventually be unprofitable or decommissioned.
South Korea now has seven new coal plants (5.4 GW) under construction and another two plants (2.1 GW) planned, as well as several retrofits in various stages of planning, the report showed. All these plans would have to be canceled in order to follow the Green New Deal proposed by the government.
The government had already introduced a 15-year plan to increase renewable energy in the country, hoping to expand renewables to 20% by 2030. Nevertheless, the plan means the reduction of gas-fired capacity but not necessarily of coal, which still leaves some unanswered questions about how South Korea will achieve carbon-neutrality.
Climate change is a big issue for people in South Korea, with 86% claiming it’s a major threat to the country. “Asia is not a region where you have climate denialism. People not only think the weather is different but they think things are different in ways that are bad,” Brown said