In the fight against climate change, South Korea ranks near the bottom, in terms of what it is doing to prevent dangerous climate change, according to the Climate Change Performance Index 2016. So, just what is the story of Korea’s policies on this front?

Korea and Climate Change, Full Table

The Climate Change Performance Index Ranks Korea as 5th from the Bottom, with a Rating of “Very Poor”

In 2012, South Korea was heralded as a pioneer in the global response to climate change. In May of that year, it became the first Asian country to pass a national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions trading scheme (ETS). The goal was to help Korea reduce emissions by 30% by the year 2020. This was in comparison to business-as-usual (BAU) levels.

The act was really the fulfilling of a pledge to reduce emission levels that the Korean government, under President Lee Myung-bak, had made back in 2009. At that time, Korea was already the OECD’s fastest-growing carbon polluter, and Asia’s fourth-largest economy. It also aimed to use hybrid cars, renewable and nuclear energy consumption, and smart grids to help meet that 2020 mark.

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President Lee was known as a trailblazer for Korean environmental and climate policy. Also in 2009, he spearheaded his Four Major Rivers Restoration Project, which was meant to provide water security, improved flood control, and restored ecosystem vitality.

During the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in December that year, South Korea was held in high regard. Even before the conference, it was hoped that Korea’s actions would be seen as a model for other Asian economies. As Reuters wrote, “Seoul is establishing a precedent that might encourage much bigger emitters like China and India to agree to targets of their own, although their resistance is unlikely to bend soon.” President Lee and Korea basked in praise.

Korea and Climate Change, President Lee Myung-bak

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak Was Seen as a Pioneer in the Fight against Climate Change

Fast forward to 2015, however, and the world was taking a very different view to Seoul’s efforts to combat climate change. President Lee had been succeeded by Park Geun-hye, and, on June 11 that year, Vice Environment Minister Jeong Yeon-man announced that Korea would be revising its erstwhile target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2020. This engendered heavy criticism towards Seoul, as the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) declared that the previous reduction goals were “tough to meet.”

Instead, the PMO laid out four possible alternative scenarios, which involved possible cuts of BAU gas emissions levels of 14.7%, 19.2%, 25.7%, and 31.3%. More importantly, the target year was pushed back to 2030. However, all these new levels were rated as inadequate by the Climate Action Tracker. The government finally decided that by 2030 it would slash emissions by 37% from BAU levels. The original domestic climate law, the Green Growth Act, was formally amended in 2016 to reflect the new targets.

Korea and Climate Change, Climate Action Tracker

The Climate Action Tracker Gave South Korea the Low Rating of “Inadequate” for 2016

Such “backsliding,” as some called it, brought derision upon Seoul. It seemed the new administration didn’t care as much about reducing carbon emissions as Lee’s government. The reworked 2030 commitment would only bring emissions levels back down to what they were in 2008. So, the policy would cut about the same amount of emissions as the original Green Growth Act, only 10 years later.

How could one know Korea would not change its mind again? As one blogger roared, “The fact they [the Koreans] can tear up the 2020 legislation only helps to emphasize how worthless their commitments are.”

Results were not favorable for rankings. Due to Korea’s abandonment of the 2020 GHG goal, along with steep increases in greenhouse gas emissions and financial support for coal-fired power plant exports, the Institute for Climate Change Action (ICCA) announced on November 6, 2016, that South Korea was now in the basket of the four biggest “climate villains,” alongside Saudi Arabia, Australia, and New Zealand.

Another example of a reversal of international opinion can be seen from climatechangenews.com. While once extolling South Korea as “a critical player in the international environmental negotiations” in November 2012, four years later, in November 2016, it published an article entitled, “South Korea Leads List of 2016 Climate Villains.”

Korea and Climate Change, Park Geun-hye

Under the Park Geun-hye Administration, Korea Went Back on Its Pledge to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 30% by 2020

So, now that Korea has hit rock-bottom, in terms of trustworthiness to flight climate change, what will it do now? Its credibility already shaken, the country will have to work hard to show the world that it takes reducing greenhouse gas emissions seriously. Thomas Winklehner, a trader with Korea Carbon, stated that Korea’s new policy risks losing the support of industries in the achievement of emission reductions. “Companies should both be encouraged to achieve short-term targets while having the certainty that long-term targets provide for making investment decisions,” he said.

What is perhaps more unnerving, is that responsibility for enforcing emission reductions has shifted to the more business-friendly Ministry of Strategy and Finance, away from the Ministry of Environment. As Carbon Pulse reported, “Observers said those changes increase the chances of allocation levels being adjusted upwards as there would be no point restricting emission levels to an abandoned target, especially as the Korean economy is struggling with low growth rates.”

Moreover, Seoul’s desire to pursue green energy puts off many of its resource-intensive industries. An official at top ethylene maker Yeochun Naphtha Cracking Center maintained that, “To the petrochemical industries, it means new additional costs.”

Such pressure from businesses, together with a new climate-skeptical Trump Administration that has threatened to revise current trade and security policies towards Korea, not to mention the Park Administration’s fight for its very survival with weekly mass protests calling for the President’s resignation, does not augur well for Korean climate change policy. Under the current circumstances, it would seem Seoul might have higher priorities than reducing gas emissions.

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