In East Asian first, South Korea announces ambitions to reach net zero by 2050

South Korea, the world’s seventh-largest carbon emitter, is home to energy-intensive industries such as automotives and steel. Its ruling political party wants to end the nation’s contribution to climate change.

Seoul, SK
South Korea, which is home to various energy-intensive industries, has long been criticised for failing to act on climate change. Image: Clint Sharp, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr

South Korea’s ruling political party on Monday announced its ambition for the nation to adopt a Green New Deal and deliver net zero carbon emissions by 2050. If the plan goes through, the country—the world’s seventh-largest emitter—will be the first in East Asia to set a timeframe to end its contribution to climate change.

In its manifesto for the upcoming legislative elections, the liberal Democratic Party of Korea outlined policies geared towards shrinking the country’s vast climate impacts. They include a carbon tax, a phase-out of domestic and overseas coal project financing, and large-scale investment in renewable energy.

“Reaching net-zero carbon emissions is very ambitious in a highly industrialised country where climate change has never been high on the political agenda. That the ruling party makes this one of the major pledges for the coming election is a significant change,” said Daul Jang, government relations and advocacy specialist at Greenpeace Korea.

The elections on 15 April, when all 300 National Assembly seats will be up for grabs, are set to shape South Korea’s journey towards its net zero goal, as the outcome will determine if president Moon Jae-in and his ministers can legislate a Green New Deal and how quickly they can do it, Jang told Eco-Business.

Asked how likely the plan would materialise, he said the country’s Justice Party—its third-biggest political party—and Green Party Korea had both recently signalled their ambition to ramp up climate action through a Green New Deal Act. Together with these pro-climate parties, the Democratic Party is expected to secure the majority of seats in parliament, he said.

Even if South Korea’s presidential election, to be held in 2022, were to result in a change of government, increasing pressure from citizens and growing global momentum mean the country’s pathway towards lower emissions is unlikely to change drastically, he said.

However, should a more conservative government come into power, the coal phase-out and clean energy deployment may slow down.

A first in East Asia

Besides being the world’s seventh-largest carbon emitter, South Korea is also the third-biggest public coal financier and has long been under fire for failing to act on climate change. Its commitments are rated as highly insufficient and not consistent with keeping global heating below 2 degrees Celsius by Climate Action Tracker.

Three years ago, the government released a 15-year plan to boost clean energy generation, with a target to expand the share of renewables to 20 per cent by 2030. But with current policies, the country is poised to remain heavily reliant on climate-wrecking coal.

The country has also been slammed for heavily investing in highly polluting coal-fired power plants abroad that would not meet the nation’s own environmental standards at home.

If implemented, South Korea would be the first in East Asia to commit to climate action in line with recommendations by climate scientists. It would also be the first Asian nation to implement a Green New Deal Act with wide-ranging ramifications on the country’s economy.

Efforts to stem emissions in China and Japan—the region’s biggest carbon emitters—are, at present, nowhere near the scale required to avert runaway climate change. Japan last year announced its plan to become a carbon-neutral society “at the earliest possible time in the latter half of this century”, while China has committed to peak carbon-dioxide emissions by 2030 at the latest.

Slashing emissions in South Korea—which counts electronics, automobiles, shipbuilding, chemicals and steel among its energy-intensive industries—won’t be easy, observed Greenpeace’s Jang. It will require vast investments to boost energy efficiency and to speed up the nation’s transition to renewables, which at present account for less than 10 per cent of the energy mix, he told Eco-Business.

Replacing the country’s emissions trading scheme—the world’s second-largest after the European Union’s—with carbon pricing will be challenging, while the switch to green power will affect millions of workers in South Korea’s fossil fuel, petrochemical and automobile sectors, Jang said, noting that the government has not announced plans to phase out diesel and petrol vehicles.

No clear timeline yet

Greenpeace Korea welcomed the ruling party’s move, but said South Korea urgently needs to adopt a concrete plan with a clear roadmap and timeline to reach its net zero goal.

The advocacy group expects the government to announce details on its shift away from fossil fuels at the P4G (Partnering for Green Growth and the Global Goals 2030) conference to be held in Seoul this June.

When nations adopted the historic Paris climate accord in 2015, they agreed to update nationally determined contributions (NDCs) every five years to reflect progress on efforts to tackle global heating.

But five years down the road, countries have largely failed to submit new pledges before the deadline in February. After failing to make headway in Madrid last year, it remains to be seen if the biggest emitters will pledge more ambitious action at the next climate change conference to be held in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global greenhouse gas emissions must be slashed by almost half from recent levels by 2030 and reach net-zero by mid-century to avoid the most dangerous and costly impacts of climate change.

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