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Achieving a balance: how South Korea is getting on track to meet emissions reduction target

South Korea’s rapid economic growth has brought prosperity to its people but has also left the country heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Now the Korean government is setting a course that will see a 40% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2031, writes Political Editor Nick Powell.

At COP27 in Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt, South Korean presidential envoy Na Kyung-won stated that her country will achieve its contribution to greenhouse gas reduction through switching to a balance of alternative energy sources such as renewables and nuclear power.

She also reconfirmed a commitment made before the election of President Yoon, at COP26 in Glasgow in Scotland last year. South Korea’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 will not exceed 60% of the 2018 level.

As a country that has achieved rapid industrialisation in recent decades, South Korea has become heavily dependent on coal, oil and gas. Diversification of energy sources and greater efficiency are now priorities.

The Director General for Climate Change at the Ministry of Environment, Se Chang Ahn, told me that setting the plan that puts South Korea on a path to carbon neutrality by 2050 had been a difficult process. A task force that included experts, interest groups and business corporations agreed on the need to achieve a social consensus.

Se Chang Ahn and Nick Powell

Public awareness of the need to tackle climate change had been growing, not least due to its effects on the Korean people, with typhoons and heavy flooding hitting the peninsula. Young people had contributed a lot to the process and local government was also heavily involved.

The South Korean government is making a major investment in research and development aimed at promoting carbon neutrality through technological innovation, as well as creating an environment that encourages private companies to make similar investments themselves.

The Director-General recalled that back in 2014, when he was the ministry’s Director for Transport, the government recognised the importance of investing in electric vehicles, to protect the competitive edge of the automotive industry. Hydrogen technology is also seeing major investment.

Regarding power generation, he stressed that Europe was better equipped for hydro power generation and had greater scope for wind power. Nevertheless, support for renewable energy was being stepped up, with a target of over 20% renewable power by 2030.

At Sejong University, Professor Eui-Chan Jeon specialises in climate change. He told me that a country that had relied for its economic growth on energy intensive industries such as steel, petrochemicals and motor manufacturing had a huge task ahead. He expected the new government’s nuclear-friendly policy to play a large part.

He also saw tackling energy consumption as playing an important role, with better insulation and and other measures to reduce energy loss. Demand would have to be managed with different prices at different times of day aimed at reducing peak consumption.

The professor pointed to South Korea leading the way with electric cars and hydrogen powered vehicles, with government subsidies playing their part. He expected internal combustion engine production to end by about 2042, noting that the science of fossil fuel propelled engines was already becoming an obsolete subject in universities, with professors no longer recruited to teach it.

Achieving a balance: how South Korea is getting on track to meet emissions reduction target

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