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Carbon Pricing

Korea Makes Climate Pledge, But Is It Enough?

The Republic of Korea (South Korea) is one of the 44 countries that have submitted emissions pledges to the official United Nations INDC list. South Korea is one of the fastest growing emitters in the developed world and is in the top 10 (#7, in April) on the world list.

Hanbit nuclear station, South Korea (

Hanbit nuclear station, South Korea (

The country’s high export rates for manufactured goods plays a critical role in Korea’s increasing emission levels. The International Energy Agency found last year that South Korea’s power demand increased by 162% over the period 1990–2013. Coal-fired generation (45% in 2013) and nuclear (26% in 2013) make up the bulk of the nation’s power sources. The country emitted around 694 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2014. Korea is now shifting the balance toward nuclear, canceling 4 coal plant orders and announcing two new orders for reactors last month. It is also an exporter of nuclear technology.

The Korea INDC was the last plan of four that were submitted on June 30, the midway UNFCCC deadline date. The plan calls for a 37% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below the business-as-usual emissions mark of 850.6 MtCO2e by 2030. This pledge exceeds four previously discussed targets of 14.7-31.3%. Said a Korean government communique quoted by Ed King of RTCC:

“We decided to raise the target from the reduction scenarios, considering our leadership on climate change such as hosting the GCF (Green Climate Fund), our global responsibility, and opportunity to develop new energy business and innovative manufacturing sectors.”

Although Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary-General, and US Secretary of State John Kerry have both endorsed (and praised) the South Korea INDC, others are unconvinced it will be very effective. First, Korea is counting on nearly a third of its emission cuts coming from purchasing international carbon credits—not quantified in the INDC, but in government correspondence—rather than making real domestic reductions.

Second, critics find the plan wanting for the same reason the deeply researched Climate Action Tracker ranks it “inadequate.” South Korea’s proposed target is not in line with an approach considered fair to all in order for the world to reach a 2°C threshold. In other words, the Korea INDC would not contribute to holding warming below 2°C unless other countries put in extra effort. If most other countries followed South Korea’s approach, global warming would top 3°–4°C, currently thought incompatible with life as we know it.

The lack of land-use, land-use change, and forestry (LULUCF) components in Korea’s INDC—an area that assessors are increasingly recognizing as significant worldwide—also causes some concern. If these elements were included in a more realistic scenario, the INDC would be even weaker than as proposed now. Leaving substantial forestry considerations to chance is risky business these days.

Carbon Pulse sees the domestic segment of the Korean plan as similar to Japan’s (also rated inadequate). Part of the insufficiency may stem from the fact that the South Korean emission trading scheme initiated this year (the world’s second-largest) has started off slower than expected. However, the business lobby (Federation of Korean Industries) sees the goal as too high and having been influenced by international pressure.

Did the US influence the choice of goal South Korea finally adopted? Brian Deese, President Obama’s top energy and climate change advisor, told The Hill that the President and South Korean President Park Geun-hye discussed the issue earlier this month:

“The United States has been actively engaged with Korea as they’ve worked on their INDC, and in particular as they’ve finalized it. We are pleased to see the Koreans set a target that is more ambitious than the draft public scenarios that were out for consultation, and to make a target that is consistent with their prior commitments to 2020 emissions goals.”

Whatever the case, as Christiana Figueres, chief of the UNFCCC, has repeatedly noted, these INDCs represent only starting points, ones that each nation will likely refine (and tighten) in years to come to bring the world to the 2-degree temperature rise, or better yet, the newly recognized 1.5-degree goal.


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Written By

covers environmental, health, renewable and conventional energy, and climate change news. She's currently on the climate beat for Important Media, having attended last year's COP20 in Lima Peru. Sandy has also worked for groundbreaking environmental consultants and a Fortune 100 health care firm. She writes for several weblogs and attributes her modest success to an "indelible habit of poking around to satisfy my own curiosity."


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