Despite concerns that it has weakened its commitment, Korea remains determined to fight global warming by pushing through carbon reduction projects at home and boosting international cooperation, the nation’s ambassador for climate change said.
In recent months, criticism has mounted over the new administration’s relative lack of interest in advancing Seoul’s much-touted climate initiative, which hit its stride under former President Lee Myung-bak with his 2008 “low carbon, green growth” vision.
But Shin Boo-nam, a top environmental expert at the Foreign Ministry, rather envisions a big leap forward in the country’s environmental activities in the coming years as it follows through on existing emissions pledges and carbon-cutting programs.
“The Park Geun-hye government, too, sees sustainable development as a national goal and is looking into how to go about it, in which green growth is a key tool along with support for other developing countries,” Shin said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald.
A 55-year-old career diplomat, he has taken up numerous key environment-related positions at home and abroad since his entry to the ministry in 1982.
Previous posts include ambassador for green growth, deputy representative at the permanent mission to the U.N., vice chair of the Environmental Policy Committee of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, and director-general for international cooperation at the Environment Ministry.
His remarks reflect growing skepticism about President Park Geun-hye’s ambiguous environmental policy nearly nine months after her inauguration.
Park and her aides explicitly criticized Lee’s green packages as too oriented toward economic growth, vowing a sweeping review on the four-river refurbishment and other ambitious projects.
Though some signaled a shift back to sustainable development, they have yet to draw up a comprehensive framework and action plans, bogged down by a lackluster economy, rocketing welfare spending and other thorny issues at hand.
Cheong Wa Dae has also closed the Presidential Commission on Green Growth set up by Lee in 2008 as the prime caretaker of his initiative, while ministries in charge of environment, finance, industry and territorial policies have erased “green” from the names of their bureaus and divisions and downsized them.
Even the post of ambassador for green growth has been abolished, fueling concerns of a reduced role for Korea in global environmental activities.
“It is a fact that the term ‘green growth’ is being used less currently largely because it was a pet agenda of the previous government,” Shin said.
“But after all, green growth is all about responding to climate change. And in doing so, there is no letup ― the president and foreign minister openly pledged to boost the country’s role on the international stage while bridging rich and poor countries.”
Reflecting the government’s newly affirmed resolve is a recently re-launched commission on green growth, Shin said. Albeit with a smaller workforce, role and level of power under the prime minister, the organization would embrace a bottom-up approach given expanded contribution by scholars and civic groups.
“I think this would usher in an era of green growth 2.0,” the ambassador said.
“In this administration, we will build a new green growth model with greater grassroots participation, compared with its predecessor’s top-down approach.
Overseas, Park has been striving to foster cooperation with the U.S., China, the U.K. and other core players in tackling climate change.
After her first summit with U.S. President Barack Obama in May, the two allies adopted a joint statement on climate change. She and her Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping also agreed in June to work more together on global issues including climate change, environment and disaster relief.
Seoul and London also announced a joint statement during Park’s state visit last week, calling for bilateral collaboration to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote technologies such as nuclear power, carbon trading, and carbon capture and storage.
At climate talks in Warsaw this week, he would take part in discussions to create a treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol and on the financing and operation of the Global Climate Fund, whose secretariat is located in Incheon.
“If we develop those bilateral mechanisms, Korea may be able to play a critical role in future global climate negotiations,” Shin said.
“As a major economy and major emitter, we see high expectations from other countries given our emissions reduction pledges and hosting of international agencies such as the GCF and the Global Green Growth Institute.”
At stake is Korea’s goal of curbing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent from business-as-usual levels by 2020, which was unveiled by Lee at a U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen in 2007.
To that aim, the government put in place the Target Management Scheme, which requires 470 companies and institutions to set emissions goals and pay fines of up to 10 million won ($9,400) if they fail to meet them.
The program is a prelude to a carbon trading system slated for introduction in 2015, under which firms will only be able to emit more than allotted by buying credits from those that discharged less than their quotas.
Yet the 2020 goal appears far-fetched. The country’s greenhouse gases shot up a massive 9.8 percent in 2010 to 669 million tons from a year ago due chiefly to a surge in power demand and industrial production, Environment Ministry data shows.
Last week’s report by the U.N. Environment Program also picked Korea as one of the major emitters not on track to meet their commitments, along with the U.S., Japan and Canada.
Alarmed over the red lights, Environment Minister Yoon Seong-kyu has vowed to sketch out a fresh road map to reach the target and refine the existing cap-and-fine and upcoming cap-and-trade schemes “in a more viable way.”
The decision at once triggered controversy, prompted by the European Union’s recent move to modify its binding limits by taking the bloc’s financial standing into account.
But Shin cautioned against any prejudgment, saying the review had been planned before and the emission trajectory requires a long-term consideration of uncertainty.
“One thing that’s certain is that we’re toiling to honor our 2020 goal. Though voluntary, it’s a pledge made internationally,” Shin said.
“The government will not repeal such projects as cap and trade that’s enshrined in law. I think now there is a social consensus that we need to transition to a low-carbon economy even though at the expense of an economic growth rate that’s 1 to 2 percentage points lower than otherwise.”
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