Interview with Joojin Kim
South Korea voted for a new president in a presidential election on the 9th of March 2022. We asked our CCPI experts which importance the election results have for climate policy, as the upcoming decade is essential to combat climate change and decisive climate action is needed.
What is your general perception of the election results?
Joojin Kim: In one of the closest elections in South Korean history, conservative opposition candidate Yoon Seok-yeol was elected president by a very narrow margin of 0.73%. Yoon is a former prosecutor-general and his lack of political experience is seen as both a liability and an asset. The tightly won race highlights a discontent with economic policy, specifically regarding real estate. The victory indicates a notable turnaround for the main conservative bloc which has struggled since 2017, following the impeachment and expulsion of then President Park Geun-hye. But the climate crisis is not a partisan issue in South Korea. Climate is not politically divisive here. The two main political parties have similar directions on coal phase-out; the major difference between them lies in what power generation source will replace coal. However, the next five years will be critical in deciding the country’s trajectory in tackling the climate crisis and whether it will be able to meet the Paris temperature goals it has committed to.
What is the significance of the election result in terms of climate policy? What are expectations on the new government?
JK: Climate and energy are expected to undergo various changes with the inauguration of Yoon Seok-yeol. Yoon offers a different climate vision from President Moon Jae-in. Although the president-elect acknowledges the need for decarbonization, his party, the main conservative People Power Party, is traditionally pro-nuclear. Similarly, it’s the platform Yoon ran on. He promised to reverse the nuclear phase-out policy of the current administration and increase nuclear to account for 30% of total power generation. These changes are expected to materialize quickly. Under the incoming president’s pledges, the proportion of nuclear power will increase in South Korea’s 2050 carbon neutral roadmap within this year. To achieve this, Yoon said on the campaign trail that his administration will resume the construction of nuclear plants that were suspended by President Moon and boost investment in the nuclear industry, including extending the lifespan of operating nuclear plants beyond retirement. On coal, Yoon agrees that a coal phase-out is “inevitable” but has not indicated an exact exit year, most recently saying South Korea cannot suspend the construction on remaining coal power projects. In the long run, Yoon said his government will reduce the operation capacity of the most polluting coal plants from 80% to 50%.
The Republic of Korea ranks 60th in the latest edition of the CCPI 2022. What short-term measures should the next government implement to improve the country’s ranking? What are three key demands?
JK: Coal is the greatest contributor to climate change, more than any other pollutant. South Korea boasts the second highest coal power emissions per capita in the world. The country is also one of the biggest coal financiers on the planet, ranking in the top three largest public funders of overseas coal between 2018 and 2020. With Yoon Seok-yeol soon to take the helm, there is a big question mark for South Korea’s coal exit year and he has yet to rule out the possibility of suspending coal power plants under construction. His vision to maintain nuclear power comes at a time when nations from China to France are moving forward with new plants, but this decision is bound to have long-term implications on South Korea’s energy sector. Keeping nuclear in the power mix will strongly impact investments and implementation for much needed support of other zero-carbon technologies such as renewables. While Yoon promised to expand renewables to 30% in electricity generation, South Korea has struggled to boost the share of renewables sources. In the last decade, electricity generation from renewables has only grown marginally. Wind and solar accounted for 1% of total energy generated in 2010 and that number grew to 3.8% in 2020, with renewables making up less than 8% of total electricity generation. There is a lot of work ahead for South Korea, especially as Yoon does not support a separate climate and energy ministry at this time. To tackle these issues, the most pressing climate tasks for the president-elect will be to introduce a coal retirement mechanism, establish a fair power market for renewables, address the country’s massive public oil and gas financing, and accelerate the country’s steel sector decarbonization. This will require the cancellation of new coal power stations and an immediate phase-out of operating coal-fired power stations by 2030, reforms in the renewable energy permitting schemes to give renewables the same grid access as conventional power plants, less reliance on liquefied natural gas as a source of electricity generation, and a rapid phase-out of fossil fuel finance. South Korea should also join other advanced economies in its commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050, pursuing a more aggressive NDC target and joining pledges such as RE100.
What are the biggest climate policy challenges for your country until 2030?
JK: South Korea’s current NDC target is still inadequate to meet global climate goals. Last year, under the current administration, the country announced emissions targets of 40% reduction below 2018 levels by 2030 when South Korea needs at least a 59% domestic reduction below 2017 levels by 2030 to do its fair share under the Paris Agreement. Yoon Seok-yeol, however, said that the country’s current NDC is too burdensome for industries and that adjustments will need to be made. He also expressed concerns that a 2050 coal phase-out is “unreasonable,” adding that the speed of exit will need to be modified for the economy. Yoon’s comments come despite South Korea falling greatly behind many advanced economies to at least halve their emissions by the end of the decade. For South Korea to do its part, the president-elect must make more aggressive climate pledges. In coal, the government must announce a 2030 coal phase-out, in line with calls for OECD member nations to exit coal by that time. For fossil gas, the country must cancel gas plant projects replacing coal and set a gas phase-out year. Legislation must also be introduced to streamline permitting procedures for renewable energy and solar PV activity restrictions must be abolished. Although Yoon has promised to have renewable sources account for 30% of the power mix, more must be done. South Korea must increase renewable energy to make up roughly 40-50% to accomplish global climate targets. In addition, South Korea must stop unbated and electricity-only forest biomass and palm-oil based biofuel power plants.
Which developments in your country make you hopeful?
JK: Looking back at environmental developments in both the U.S. and South Korea, significant environmental policies were pushed through when conservative administrations and a majority liberal legislature were in power. The U.S. Clean Air Act was introduced under Nixon’s presidency; the acid emissions credit trading scheme came into effect during Reagan’s administration. In South Korea, a conservative president implemented the greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme, and the country became a regional climate hub to host the Green Climate Fund. We are hanging onto similar expectations that the incoming conservative president and majority liberal legislature will also contribute surprising and significant climate policy developments that will avert the climate catastrophe.
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