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Upstream Rather Than Downstream: Addressing Carbon Emissions in South Korea

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By Eric Lee

· 3 min read

September has proven to be a month of great progress in the ongoing struggle against climate change in South Korea. Just a couple weeks ago, the National Assembly, the country’s main legislative body, passed the Basic Law on Carbon Neutrality. Now on its way to the president’s desk for final approval, the bill formalises Seoul’s commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 with an additional requirement to cut emissions by at least 35% relative to 2018 levels by 2030. To flesh out this commitment, the government has already added over 10 billion dollars in extra funding to next year’s budget for green initiatives with an emphasis on transportation.

Whereas all these actions including the incentives to get more electric vehicles on the road mark an important step in reducing emissions, it doesn’t take much thought to realise the government still isn’t doing enough. Specifically, many of its efforts are misguided, and resources are going towards tackling the wrong issues.  Granted, battery cell production and EV adoption are essential to transitioning to a green future. However, in South Korea’s case, transportation accounts for less than 15% of total carbon emissions. At around 48%, almost half of the country’s CO2 emissions come from power generation, namely for the purposes of electricity and heating. What needs to be targeted above all is, therefore, the latter.

Based on 2019 data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), renewables such as wind, solar, hydroelectric, and biofuels merely accounted for less than five percent of total energy supply in South Korea. The cornerstone to President Moon’s energy policy has been to cut down on coal and nuclear and promote natural gas that emits half as much as traditional petroleum. Despite the urgency that various political leaders express of the climate crisis, coal and oil have barely budged and remain steady at around 25% and 40% of the country’s energy make-up, respectively. The government has, of course, announced on several occasions that it is committed to phasing out coal and petroleum-power energy plants and that it will be closing around half of the 60 or so coal-fired power stations by 2034. However, that is over a decade from now, and the timeline for shutting down such ageing infrastructure is too long.

Across the board, there needs to be a rethinking of priorities in how to reach carbon neutrality. In addition, the government needs to put its money where its mouth is and speed up its efforts in actions it is already taking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As of now, the growing prevalence of Teslas and other EVs with their signature blue license plates on Seoul’s streets is but a mirage. While they do help reduce local air and noise pollution, what good can they possibly be if two thirds of the electricity powering them come from coal and oil?

Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Eric Lee is a recent graduate of Cornell University. His focus is on the geopolitics of renewable energy and sustainability in urban planning. Based in Seoul, Eric works at a biotech company where he is responsible for sales and foreign market research.

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