South Korea, the highest per capita energy consumer in Asia (185.5 million Btu in 2004 according to the EIA) aside from the city state of Singapore (413.4 million Btu), is finally waking up to the threat of climate change. For over 50 years, the South Koreans focused on lifting millions of its citizens out of dire poverty on its rise to become one of the “Asian Tiger” economies. Today the nation has the 11th largest economy in the world. But the cost of such rapid economic growth and development was complete disregard for the environment thanks to very lax environmental policies. Many people remained uninterested in the environmental movement and such a movement is still under the process of evolution as more and more South Koreans are waking up to the environmental disturbances around them. An interview with members of the largest environmental NGO in South Korea, the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement (KFEM), reveals that perhaps climate change will be the crux that forces South Korea to start acting like a responsible developed economy which will do more to combat this global threat. The impacts of climate change on Korea are becoming more and more visible: head of the Climate Change and Energy Unit at KFEM, Mr. Junkwan Ahn, states that winters in Korea are already beginning to get shorter and the summers, longer. Certain flowers are blooming year round now and some species of conifers which were perfectly suited to Korea’s temperate climate are finding it hard to adapt in what seems to be a shift towards subtropical climate. Over the long term, Korea is expected to get increased precipitation, signs of which are already evident according to Ahn and heat waves will also take their toll. Finally, South Koreans, which are some of the most fashion conscious driven people on the planet, are beginning to realize that even this aspect of their life will have to change as they will be forced to adapt to the changing climate. Ahn is currently putting together a report which will have details of the impacts of climate change on Korea.
Despite the many threats posed to South Korea from climate change, it is alarming to know that the country has done virtually nothing to mitigate their contribution towards the problem. At the time the Kyoto Protocol was drafted, South Korea was still reeling from the Asian financial crisis of 1997 as it was perhaps the worst affected. Though technically a developed country, it was exempted for this reason from being an Annex I country. However, from 2013, Korea along with Mexico will join the group of nations required to reduce emissions according to the current framework. According to Ahn, currently South Korea is the 9th largest emitter of CO2 in the world and 10th in terms of overall GHG emissions. This may be set to change however, as South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck Soo recently admitted, “It’s quite clear recently that without due attention to environmental problems, sustainable change will be totally impossible.”
The 4th comprehensive plan of action on climate change has been released, but the content says Ahn, is dubious in terms of actual concrete targets. The country is sticking largely to nuclear power as a solution strategy-it currently provides 40% of the nation’s electricity needs. With regards to transportation, Seoul, South Korea’s biggest population center and one of the densest cities in the world, sees approximately 70% of the population using some form of public transportation every day. Still, people like driving their personal cars with more than 30% (and growing) of all cars being classified as “large,” according to Ahn. UN statistics reveal that compared to neighboring Japan which has 72,527,000 motor vehicles and 565,000 in Singapore, South Korea has approximately 14,542,000 vehicles. While the Energy Information Administration (EIA) reveals that South Korea’s per capita GHG emissions are 10.3 metric tonnes as compared to Japan’s 9.9 and Singapore’s 27.9, UN Statistics report that it has seen the greatest change in over all emissions since 1990 with an increase of 93%–clearly a cause for concern. Even its carbon intensity is higher at 0.69 metric tonnes per thousand ($2000 PPP) compared to Japan’s 0.4 metric tonnes (EIA).
Of greater concern is the fact that South Korea has an even higher energy intensity (a measure of the energy efficiency of the economy) than either Singapore (which has a higher per capita energy consumption) and Japan (which has better energy efficiency measures). A nation that is seeing its share of CO2 emissions rise and is already one of the highest per capita energy consumers in its region, can ill afford to also have high energy intensity as well. This can only spell more emissions for the coming decades and greater consumption of energy as it tries to fill the gap of energy deficiency created from the inefficiency of its economy. Renewable energy should offer some solutions, but Ahn states “there is no official policy on renewable energy and the government is very naïve in its knowledge of market based solutions towards reducing emissions” such as creating carbon funds, using the Clean Development Mechanism, and establishing an emissions trading system for industries. Currently South Korea is getting 2.2% of all of its energy from renewable energy sources but the government has set targets of achieving 5% of overall energy production from renewables by 2011 and 9% by 2030. As far as emissions reductions, KFEM is advocating for a 20% reduction by 2020 with 2005 serving as the base year. That may seem like nothing for Asia’s second largest per capita energy consumer, but according to Ahn, KFEM is advocating 2005 as a base year because between 1990 and 2004, South Korea saw its CO2 emissions rise by a whopping 104.6% (higher than the average given by the UN). Note that Singapore has invested sees 0% of its energy derived from renewable energy sources according to UN statistics.
After it’s all said and done, it seems that South Korea is still in the early stages of taking action to limit its emissions and take assertive action towards tackling climate change. But for a nation where the environmental movement has been virtually non-existent throughout much of its industrialization phase, acknowledging the need for action is in itself a big step. However, if the “Land of the Morning Calm” is to maintain its tranquility, it realizes that urgent action will be necessary to avoid being excessively disturbed by the global threat of climate change. It is time the nation, which has attained one of the highest levels of development in Asia, start taking leadership on the matter.