The growth of South Korea over the six decades following the Korean War has been nothing short of remarkable. After the war ended South Korea was one of the poorest countries on the planet, but rapid industrialisation and an extreme focus on economic growth allowed it to become one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world.

At the start of this year, and for the first time in seven years, South Korea was ranked the second most innovative country in the world – the previous six years they were number one – according to the Bloomberg Innovation Index. The growth of companies like Hyundai, LG and Samsung have been key to that development and ensured that they continue to lead technological innovation across the world.

As good as South Korea is doing economically and technologically, they are almost entirely reliant on fossil fuels – mainly coal. Not only are they reliant on fossil fuels, but with almost no natural resources to fall back on to they are reliant on importing more than 98% of fossil fuels from other countries, all imported by tanker with no international pipeline infrastructure in place.

“We don’t have any other natural resources – we only have our brains to turn to.”

Chang Suk-Gwon, Business Management Professor at Hanyang University

The Climate Action Tracker – who are an independent scientific body examining how a number of countries around the world are taking enough action to achieve the target of limiting warming to 1.5℃ – currently rate actions taken by South Korea to achieve the goals set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement as ‘highly insufficient’. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, South Korea ranks 7th for total emissions produced by a country. On a per capita basis, South Korea ranks as 22nd which, when you consider many of the countries above are oil producing nations, is incredibly high for a country of its size and density.

Just over two years ago, I wrote a blog looking at the sustainability of Seoul. At the time I commented on how it was using technology to become more efficient and reduce emissions produced in the South Korean capital, which it has been successful in doing. Improving the accessibility and fuel efficiency of public transport, making it easier to get around using electric vehicles, and making it possible to control aspects of the home by mobile have played a role in reducing emissions, but fossil fuels are still being used in each example. In fact, for all its technology, only 3% of electricity consumed in South Korea was produced by renewable energy sources.

A coal power station in South Korea (Copyright 2004 Yonhap News Agency All rights reserved.)

An Addiction to Fossil Fuels

Like many countries around the world, they talk about action and the importance of acting on the climate emergency, yet often do very little of substance to actually tackle it. South Korea is no different here. In 2008, after the global financial crash, there were promises of green growth and a change to the ‘fossil fuel normal’. Unfortunately, very little came of that and South Korea is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

I’ve often criticised the UK and Australia, in particular, for continuing to invest in fossil fuel projects; the increasing cost of the fuel and the damage to the environment and health of people when burned should be enough of a reason to leave it in the ground and switch to cleaner fuels. However, South Korea is continuing with construction of new coal plants at a rapid rate and appear to be marketing the ancient, dirty fuel as green technology. Honestly, the greenwashing in South Korea is like nothing I’ve ever seen before…

Take Goseong Green Power for example. If you go to their website you’re welcomed by the below image of some kind of picturesque lakeside scene and labels itself as an “innovative green power provider.” With that and the name, it might be a bit of a shock to find out that they’re planning to have a new coal power plant built by 2021 in South Gyeongsang Province.

Front page of Goseong Green Power website (Source: www.ggpower.co.kr)

This is just one example. The more you look into the energy industry in South Korea, the more companies you find marketing, and even directly calling, themselves ‘green’ when they’re either heavily invested in or building coal power plants. Yet there seems to be no kind of regulation or even morality to stop companies deliberately lying to the public.

It isn’t just at home that South Korea needs to drop fossil fuels. If South Korea is to truly go green, then it also must rapidly divest from fossil fuels and put an end to supplying funds to fossil fuel projects. A recent watchdog report from Oil Change International found that South Korea, along with China, Japan and Canada, have been giving a combined $50billion each year to fossil fuel projects in government-backed loans and through international development programmes, going directly against commitments in the Paris Agreement.

Can South Korea Go Green?

Quite clearly, any move to be more sustainable and come anywhere remotely close to achieving targets set in the Paris Agreement is going to be difficult.

In the wake of the school climate strikes, international recognition of the climate crisis and the recent Coronavirus pandemic, South Korea does finally appear to be taking a more serious look at tackling the climate emergency. A Green New Deal, something that is receiving more and more traction in countries all over the world, is entering the forefront of South Korean politics with one particular new MP leading the charge.

Soyoung Lee was recently the subject of a report by The Guardian looking at how South Korea is one more country that is seriously looking at the implementation of a Green New Deal. Her campaign in the run-up to the election had the Green New Deal at the heart of her manifesto which, given the landslide win, is very popular among the South Korean public. Her energy appears to be spreading through the current government as many MPs seem increasingly ambitious to make the green new deal a reality in a post-COVID world – something that was missing after the 2008 financial crash.

Soyoung Lee taking part in the climate strikes (Source: The Guardian)

With a clear majority in the national assembly, there are few barriers stopping the governing Democracy party from enacting a green new deal for South Korea. There will obviously be economic challenges that must be addressed after the recent pandemic but there is no reason that green growth cannot restart the South Korean economy whilst reducing the environmental and climate impact of the country.

Technology Is Not The Only Solution

For all the technology produced in South Korea and the innovation that is quite clearly available, the reliance they still have on fossil fuels, especially coal, is very troubling. They’re still a very long way from getting remotely close to the targets agreed in the Paris Climate Agreement and with their current reliance on fossil fuels, it could be many years before we see substantial

The case of South Korea also raises serious questions about the role of technology in getting us out of the climate emergency. If one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world is one of the worst polluters, technology cannot be seen as the only solution. I’m not at all saying technology won’t help solve this crisis, it just won’t be the silver bullet many hope it will be.

The truth is, and it’s the same for every country all over the world, is that solving the climate crisis and developing a sustainable, if not regenerative, planet requires a multi-faceted approach at every scale. With the increase in efficiency of South Korea’s cities – or at least in Seoul – and the outcome of the recent election, changes are happening, even if it is just at the local scale. South Koreans appear to want to take the climate emergency seriously, now we just need the government and South Korean businesses to follow suit, quickly.

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