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The Peninsula

South Korea Struggles to Meet Its Ecological Aspirations

Published October 25, 2019
Author: Yong Kwon

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • At the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, President Moon announced his plan to double Seoul’s funding of the Green Climate Fund and host an international climate summit in South Korea.
  • The government’s recently released data showed that greenhouse gas emissions reached a record high in 2017.
  • South Korea’s coal consumption increased by 2.4% in 2018, the only country to do so among OECD members.

Implications: While President Moon’s pledge at the UN was consistent with his broader effort to reduce South Korea’s carbon emissions, Seoul faces the challenge of building a greener economy without nuclear power or whole-hearted private sector support. As a result of Moon’s domestic pledge to phase out nuclear energy, the Korean utility operators had no choice but to rely more heavily on coal and LNG in the past two years.

Meanwhile, South Korean firms like Doosan, Samsung, and Hyundai have won lucrative bids to build coal-fired plants in Southeast Asia. In fact, South Korea is the second-largest investor in the global coal-financing market. These realities hold up Korea’s push to become a principal player in the struggle against climate change.

Context: Following the 2011 nuclear accident at Fukushima, activists began calling on the government to phase out nuclear power plants from South Korea. A 2012 scandal that revealed flaws in these plants’ safety protocols further exacerbated public anxiety around nuclear energy. Finally, a series of small earthquakes in 2016 reintroduced fears that an analogous accident to Fukushima could occur in South Korea. Cognizant of this pushback, the government pivoted its investment focus to renewable energy – but this is not expected to substitute coal output in the near future.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Soojin Hwang, Hyoshin Kim, and Rachel Kirsch.

Picture from IAEA’s flickr account

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