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The Peninsula

Korea and Global Climate Change Negotiations

Published September 24, 2014
Category: South Korea

By Troy Stangarone

On September 23, South Korean President Park Geun-hye and more than 120 world leaders attended the United Nations Climate Summit in New York during the annual opening of the General Assembly. The summit, held as a prelude to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris next year where world leaders hope to conclude a treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, served as an opportunity for world leaders to discuss ideas on how to address the issue of climate change and make pledges towards future contributions. While European nations have usually been at the forefront of efforts to curb climate change, in recent years Korea has become increasingly involved in efforts to address climate change.

Traditionally, the issue of climate change has been difficult to address for a series of reasons. Globally, there has been a division between developed and developing countries over who should bear the burden of adjusting to climate change. While developed countries have pushed for all nations to reduce emissions to combat the challenge, developing countries have sought to be exempt from emissions reductions to avoid slowing their economic growth. However, while a solution that only involved developed countries might have previously worked, with China and India now two of the world’s largest emitters, a solution that brings together the developed and developing world is needed. At a local level, issues such as how the adjustment will impact the international competitiveness of industry and the extent to which climate change is seen to be occurring have also impacted the ability to develop domestic support for mitigation initiatives.

In the case of Korea, the issue of climate change is relatively new to the agenda, but its economic development has made Korea a significant source of emissions. The Global Carbon Project estimates that annual emissions from Korea have grown from 13 metric tons in 1960 to 616 metric tons last year, making Korea the 7th largest emitter of carbon in the world behind China, Japan, the United States, and Germany among others. Though, on a per person basis Korea is only the 22nd largest emitter with each Korean emitting on average 13 tons of carbon last year. However, while the average Korean emits less carbon than the average American, they do emit more carbon on average than their counterparts in Japan, Germany, or China where emissions as a whole are greater than in Korea.

Under the Lee Myung-bak administration, Korea began to play greater role internationally as a rising middle power across a range of issues, one of which was climate change. As a middle power, Korea has often sought to serve as a bridge between the developed and the developing world. On the issue of climate change, Korea has pursued a series of policies both domestically and internationally that have raised its profile on the issue.

Following the global financial crisis, South Korea utilized its stimulus package as an opportunity to promote green growth initiatives domestically. In 2009, South Korea pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent from business as usual in 2020 despite being classified as an Annex I (developing) country under the Kyoto Protocol and not having an obligation to cut emissions. Korea followed this up in 2012 by becoming the first nation in Asia to pass legislation to set up an emissions trading scheme (ETS) which is set to come into effect in 2015.

The initial legislation for Korea’s ETS targeted reductions across a range of sectors including a 61.7 percent reduction in emissions from electricity, a 27.7 percent reduction in semiconductors, 31.9 percent in automobiles, 34.3 percent in transportation, and a 27 percent reduction in household emissions. While pressure from the auto industry has led to a delay in a vehicle emissions tax designed to reduce emissions from automobiles, the ETS is still expected to come into effect next year with carbon priced at levels comparable with Europe’s ETS.

Korea also established the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI), which later became a formal international organization, to help bring together research and best practices to address climate change and other environmental challenges through sustainable and environmentally friendly economic growth. The best practices developed at the GGGI could then serve as a means for developing countries to embrace policies that would promote growth, but also limit future greenhouse gas emissions.

On the international level, Korea serves as the host country for the Green Climate Fund (GCF). The GCF, which is part of the United Nation’s efforts to address climate change, is designed to provide financial assistance to developing countries through public and private investment as they transition to more sustainable forms of economic growth.  At the recent UN Climate Summit, President Park pledged up to $100 million for the GCF’s efforts, while six other countries made pledges raising the total pledged to the GCF to $1.3 billion. Including earlier pledges by Germany and Sweden, $2.3 billion has been pledged to the Fund.

Much as with President Park’s efforts to change perceptions of the impact of unification, Korea is making efforts to change perceptions internationally on the costs of addressing climate change. At the UN Summit, Park noted that “How we view the climate agenda — as boon or bane — will bring huge differences,” while noting the benefits that can come from developing new energy technologies. Korea also contributed intellectually to the debate on whether the costs of climate change would be a “boon or bane,” as President Park said, by being one of seven countries to commission a study through the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate that found that the benefits of improved health, better air quality, and lower fuel costs could potentially mitigate the costs of adjustment.

While Korea is a relatively new participant in the effort to address climate change, it has played an increasingly important role through its efforts to help better understand the challenges and to contribute to the development of policies which would support both a greener world and continued economic growth in developing countries. Additionally, by implementing its own ETS and investing in green technologies, Korea demonstrates to other developing nations that there are steps they can take to improve the environment without sacrificing economic growth.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director of Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Rae Allen’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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