South Korea has just joined the small group of countries moving towards a carbon-neutral economy by 2050.
Amid a wave of support towards its strong actions on the coronavirus, the ruling Democratic Party won the parliamentary elections with an absolute majority. It obtained 180 of the 300 seats, giving president Moon Jae-in the green light to go ahead with his climate plan.
The president, with two remaining years in office, pledged South Korea will become the first country in East Asia to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
Like many others, South Korea signed the Paris Agreement and committed to creating a long-term decarbonization strategy. But few have actually taken solid steps to achieve this goal.
At the moment, only a reduced number of countries have so far committed to that goal. The list includes Austria, Chile, Costa Rica, Denmark, the European Union, Fiji, Marshall Islands, New Zealand, South Korea, the UK, and Uruguay.
The country’s Democratic Party introduced a climate manifesto in March, claiming its intent to implement a “Green New Deal” in the next few years. The party said it will follow the steps taken by Europe with its “Green Deal for Europe” and the “Green New Deal” planned by Democrats in the US.
The plan is highly ambitious and would lead to a radical transformation of the country’s economy. Through a medium and long-term roadmap, the government plans to boost renewable energy investments, introduce a carbon tax and support a transition to green jobs.
Jessica Yun, of the South Korean advocate group Solutions For Our Climate (SFOC), told Climate Home News she now expected climate change and energy issues to become more prominent within the national political debate.
“It is a positive sign that the ruling Democratic Party has successfully brought in environmental leaders from the coal phase-out and energy transition movement,” she said.
Back in 2016, South Korea presented a climate pledge (known as NDC) and vowed to reduce its emissions by 37% by 2030. Nevertheless, the commitment was questioned as “highly insufficient” by civil society and not in line with the Paris Agreement goals.
The main challenge for the country is its reliance on coal energy, as South Korea is the seventh-largest carbon emitter in the world. Up to 40% of South Korea’s energy matrix is based on coal, with no phase-out date set by the government so far — though that is expected to change in the near future. The country also funds many coal projects abroad, allocating US$1.1 billion for new plants in 2016 and 2017.
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. The promises sound good, but for now at least, the country still has a lot to prove
The new climate efforts set by the government are in line with the strong demand by the country’s citizens to be more ambitious. A Pew Research Center study published last year found that 86% of South Koreans viewed climate change as the foremost global threat, far ahead of terrorism or even North Korea’s nuclear program.