South Korea

   

Environmental Policies

#35
Key Findings
Lacking ambition and cohesion, South Korea’s environmental policies fall into the bottom ranks (rank 35) in international comparison. Its score on this measure has declined by 0.2 points relative to 2014.

While environmental topics are gaining importance, the government clearly prioritizes economic growth over environmental concerns. As a candidate, President Moon pledged to phase out coal and nuclear energy, but has since backed away from ambitious timelines. There is as yet no comprehensive strategy for moving toward a carbon-neutral economy.

Current plans are to expand the share of renewables in energy production by 20%, and decrease emissions by 37% below the “business-as-usual” trend, by 2030. Under current projections, the country’s emissions will be more than 150% above their 1990 levels by 2030, well above the target of 81%. The government has been quick to cave in to populist demands for low energy and fuel prices.

Problems with fine dust exposure are among the world’s worst. High-emissions cars will be blocked from entering Seoul’s city center, but this will affect less than 2% of vehicles. The country is the world’s second-largest investor in the global coal-finance market, following China.

Environment

#38

How effectively does environmental policy in your country protect and preserve the sustainability of natural resources and environmental quality?

10
 9

Environmental policy goals are ambitious and effectively implemented as well as monitored within and across most relevant policy sectors that account for the largest share of resource use and emissions.
 8
 7
 6


Environmental policy goals are mainly ambitious and effectively implemented and are monitored within and across some of the relevant policy sectors that account for the largest share of resource use and emissions.
 5
 4
 3


Environmental policy goals are neither particularly ambitious nor are they effectively implemented and coordinated across relevant policy sectors.
 2
 1

Environmental concerns have been largely abandoned.
Environmental Policy
4
Environmental policies remain unable to protect the environment and ensure sustainable resource use. Moreover, South Korea has increasingly been losing ground to the front runners in the transition to a carbon-neutral and ecologically sustainable economy. While “green growth” has in the past been a buzzword in Korean politics, this has always been more about growth than about environmental protection.
The main problem appears to be a lack of ambition. Environmental policies largely do not match the scale of environmental challenges. Those measures that are implemented, such as the bans on free plastic bags and paper cups, usually have a relatively quick and tangible impact. However, the integration of environmental policies is a major problem, as measures seem to be ad hoc and fragmented. There is as yet no comprehensive strategy for moving toward a carbon-neutral economy. Environmental policies have not been accompanied by an environmental-tax reform featuring higher tax rates on resource and energy consumption. While Korea has introduced a large emissions-trading system, the market has thus far failed to increase emission prices appreciably.
Nevertheless, the country’s environmental problems remain very serious, particularly with regard to air quality and greenhouse-gas emissions. In the 2018 Yale Environmental Performance Index, Korea improved to rank 60 out of 180 countries overall, but ranked poorly with regard to climate and energy (110) and biodiversity (144). Problems with fine dust exposure are among the world’s worst, with the country ranking 174th in this field. While some of this pollution originates in China, most of it is homegrown. Korea is the world’s seventh-largest emitter of CO2, and the share of energy production accounted for by renewables is the second-lowest in the OECD. The Moon administration plans to expand the share of renewables to a not very ambitious 20% by 2030. South Korea is the fifth-largest generator of nuclear energy in the world, which means that the nuclear waste problem will be substantial and a burden for many generations to come. While Moon originally pledged to reduce reliance on both coal and nuclear energy, he later backed away from some of the more ambitious timelines.
Despite the well-developed public transport system, Korean cities remain car-centered, with pedestrian and bicycle traffic given a lower priority. Limits on car traffic on days with bad air pollution apply only to public vehicles. In August 2019, the Seoul government announced that vehicles with the lowest emission-control grade would be blocked from entering the immediate city center. Although this will affect less than 2% of vehicles, it is the first very timid step to reduce car traffic in a society where cars are still seen as a status symbol.

Citations:
OECD. Climate Change Mitigation Policies: Korea. Retrieved October 17, 2018 (http://www.compareyourcountry.org/climate-policies?cr=oecd&lg=en&page=0&visited=)
Climate Action Tracker. 2018. “South Korea: Country Summary.” April 30. Retrieved October 17, 2018 (https://climateactiontracker.org/countries/south-korea/)
The Diplomat. “South Korea’s Nuclear Energy Debate.” October 26, 2017. https://thediplomat.com/2017/10/south-koreas-nuclear-energy-debate/
World Nuclear News. “South Korean President Accepts Public Decision.” October 23, 2017. http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/NP-South-Korean-president-accepts-public-decision-2310175.html
Finacial Times. “South Korea Joins Ranks of World’s Most Polluted Countries.” March 29, 2017.
OECD. Climate Change Mitigation Policies: Korea. Retrieved October 17, 2018 (http://www.compareyourcountry.org/climate-policies?cr=oecd&lg=en&page=0&visited=)
Climate Action Tracker. 2018. “South Korea: Country Summary.” April 30. Retrieved October 17, 2018 (https://climateactiontracker.org/countries/south-korea/)
Yonhap News. 2019. “Minister says S. Korea playing key role in global fight against climate change.” Retrieved from https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20190925002300315.
Korea.net. 2019. “President Moon announces Korea will host climate summit P4G next year.” Retrieved from http://www.korea.net/Government/Current-Affairs/National-Affairs/view?affairId=534&subId=593&articleId=175537&viewId=48984.
OECD. OECD Environmental Performance Reviews: Korea 2017, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264268265-en.

Global Environmental Protection

#31

To what extent does the government actively contribute to the design and advancement of global environmental protection regimes?

10
 9

The government actively contributes to international efforts to design and advance global environmental protection regimes. In most cases, it demonstrates commitment to existing regimes, contributes to their being advanced and has introduced appropriate reforms.
 8
 7
 6


The government contributes to international efforts to strengthen global environmental protection regimes. It demonstrates commitment to existing regimes and occasionally contributes to their being advanced and/or has introduced some appropriate reforms.
 5
 4
 3


The government demonstrates commitment to existing regimes, but does not contribute to their being advanced and has not introduced appropriate reforms.
 2
 1

The government does not contribute to international efforts to strengthen global environmental protection regimes.
Global Environmental Policy
6
While South Korea typically ratifies international agreements on environmental protection, it does not tend to take initiative in this area, and the agreements do not play an important role in domestic political decisions. The country ratified the Paris Agreement of 2015 on 3 November 2016, and hosts both the Global Green Growth Institute and the Green Climate Fund (GCF). In October 2019, President Moon promised to double Korea’s contribution to the GCF. In 2018, the government announced that Korean greenhouse gas emissions would peak in 2020. While the Moon government has shown more ambition with regard to emission reductions than in other environmental-protection areas, the challenges remain substantial. Korea is the world’s seventh-largest emitter of carbon-dioxide emissions, and twelfth-largest with regard to total greenhouse-gas emissions. It has officially announced that it will cut its emissions by 2030 to a level 37% below the business-as-usual trend, which means an increase of 81% over the levels of 1990. To achieve these goals, the government has launched several emissions-reduction programs including an emissions-trading system for key sectors, a green building plan, an incentive system supporting electric and hybrid vehicles, and measures supporting environmentally friendly public transportation. Unfortunately, according to the Climate Action Tracker (CAT), South Korea is unlikely under current policies to meet its nationally determined contribution target, which the CAT already rates as “highly insufficient.” Indeed, under current projections, Korea’s emissions will be more than 150% above 1990 levels in 2030. The Moon administration – like previous governments – does not place a particularly high priority on its global environmental responsibilities. Instead of articulating a comprehensive strategy for a transition to a carbon-neutral society, the government has been quick to give in to populist demands for low electricity and fuel prices. Recently, international environmental NGOs have pushed Korea’s government to stop funding coal power in developing countries such as Indonesia. Korea is the world’s second-largest investor in the global coal-finance market, following China. Although the country has ratified the Convention on Biodiversity, protecting biodiversity has played an important role in the planning of new industrial or housing developments.

Citations:
Korea Times, Korea to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 37% by 2030, Jun 30, 2015
Climate Action Tracker. South Korea. September 17, 2017. http://climateactiontracker.org/countries/southkorea.html
Hankyoreh. “A step backward for the South Korean government’s goals for greenhouse gas reduction.” January 30, 2017. http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_business/780567.html
NRDC: Paris Climate Conference: South Korea. November 2015.
Yonhap News. 2019. “Minister says S. Korea playing key role in global fight against climate change.” Retrieved from https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20190925002300315.
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