- By Jamie Shea
Ahead of South Korea’s legislative elections this past April, the ruling Democratic Party announced a ‘Green New Deal’ manifesto, a five-page document pledging net-zero emissions by 2050, a carbon tax, the end of coal financing, and the enactment of a Green New Deal law – the first such commitment in East Asia.
Many assumed the party’s landslide win in the legislative elections, partly due to the administration’s relatively effective COVID-19 response, would mean a dramatic shift in climate policy, given such impressive pledges. Even UN Secretary-General António Guterres praised South Korea as a “remarkable example” of combatting both the pandemic and climate change.
But we should hold the applause: while President Moon Jae-in now has the opportunity to transition his country’s economy away from fossil fuels with a Green New Deal, his administration is already contradicting this vision. This risks repeating the greenwashing mistakes of past administrations – which we simply cannot afford in an era of accelerating and devastating climate change.
While buzz around South Korea’s Green New Deal was building abroad, bureaucrats at home were orchestrating the country’s biggest fossil fuel industry bailout to date. The Korean government extended $3 bn over a 60-day period to the country’s flagship coal plant manufacturer, Doosan Heavy – with no green strings attached. For comparison, that amount of support is equivalent to more than a quarter of Korea’s total disaster relief funds.
Financing these new coal power projects would simply prolong Korea’s fossil-fuel-based economy
After receiving backlash in April for announcing a COVID-19 economic recovery focused on AI and 5G that lacked any apparent green elements, the Presidential Office vowed to incorporate green projects into the New Deal programme. Unfortunately, the plans appeared little more than a repackaging of existing policies.
In addition, net-zero emissions by 2050 would be impossible to achieve with ongoing plans to replace up to 12.7 GW of coal plants with gas plants. Such replacements would compromise the administration’s ability to meet the temperature goal set in the Paris Agreement and risk tens of billions of dollars in stranded assets.
Perhaps worst of all, while touting the benefits of a Green New Deal, the Moon administration is still aggressively pushing to finance coal power projects in Indonesia and Vietnam despite their negative profitability. Financing these new coal power projects would simply prolong Korea’s fossil-fuel-based economy and shift emissions abroad.
It’s not the first time Korea has vowed to ‘go green’ without the necessary socioeconomic and industrial transformations. The Lee Myung-Bak administration adopted a ‘Low Carbon, Green Growth’ policy in 2008, committing 80% of a $38 bn stimulus programme for various green growth projects, which failed to reduce fossil fuel dependence or substantially stimulate renewables. Solar and wind today account for approximately 3% of Korea’s electricity generation mix, the lowest among OECD countries. The green growth strategy also did nothing to stop the preceding Lee and Park administrations from approving new coal power projects – some of which are still under construction today.
We do not have time for more superficial goals and buzzword-based projects
So how can the Moon administration make things right this time?
It could start off by withdrawing public institutions’ planned investments in overseas coal power projects in Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, and declaring an end to public financing and bailouts for fossil fuels. A failure to do so would undermine the essence of the Green New Deal by shifting emissions to developing countries while prolonging South Korea’s fossil-fuel-based industry makeup, making it fall even further behind global competitors.
Next, the administration must enhance its 2030 and 2050 greenhouse gas targets through the Green New Deal legislation, and national power and energy plans must be aligned to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. That leaves no room for new coal power nor a bridge from coal to new LNG projects, both of which are currently being constructed and considered in South Korea and across Europe.
Deeper policy and governance changes, including the removal of irrational and inconsistent renewables siting restrictions, inhibitive renewables permitting procedures, barriers to RE100, and support for fossil fuels are needed to accelerate a clean energy transition. Subsidies for biomass, which the EU also mistakenly recognises as carbon-neutral, must end. In addition, the government must fill in the gaps where the market is failing – by providing financial support for training and transition for workers and incentives for improving energy efficiency in buildings and switching vehicle fleets to electric.
We do not have time for more superficial goals and buzzword-based projects. A Green New Deal with substance should include an immediate end to public financing and subsidies for fossil fuels; phase-out of coal power by 2030; a stop to a transition to gas and biomass; reform of the power market and land and maritime policies to allow for the fair growth of renewables; and transitioning workers toward clean energy. Anything less will lead to another ‘greenwashing’ failure.
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