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Insights and Analysis

Korea’s Leadership in Climate Action

December 9, 2015

By Toral Patel and Sunmee Lee

In a departure from previous UN climate talks, the Conference of the Parties (COP21) currently taking place in Paris aims to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate change. This imperative has focused attention on the “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) that each country can make to mitigating climate change. South Korea – the world’s 14th largest economy but the 8th largest emitter of CO2 – has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions across all economic sectors by 37 percent from the business-as-usual level by 2030. While some have criticized such commitments for not going far enough, over the past few years, Korea has emerged as a regional leader in climate change planning and response within Asia, and as such has significant influence in shaping global climate action.

Seoul’s City Hall boasts a seven-story-high vertical garden the size of a soccer field, which complement the building's environmentally friendly features. Photo/Flickr user Inhabitat

Seoul’s City Hall boasts a seven-story-high vertical garden the size of a soccer field, which complement the building’s environmentally friendly features. Photo/Flickr user Inhabitat

Korea’s approach to climate action falls under the broader “green growth” paradigm, which recognizes the compatibility of economic growth and environmental sustainability objectives, and advocates for low carbon development plans and policies. Among the first countries to ensconce green growth in its national development strategy, Korea has restructured its industries to focus on clean technology exports and reduce overall levels of greenhouse gas emissions under the leadership of former President Lee Myung-bak. It has institutionalized climate change as a priority, establishing dedicated government agencies and research institutions that have been sustained across political administrations. At the beginning of this year, Korea launched an ambitious national emission trading scheme that includes over 500 facilities from more than 20 sectors.

The country is also working beyond its borders to promote low carbon development. It supports developing countries and emerging economies to develop green growth strategies through the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI), now an international organization headquartered in Seoul that is dedicated to changing the way countries grow economically.  Korea is also home to the Green Climate Fund, the United Nation’s vehicle for channeling the $100 billion that developed countries have committed to mobilize by 2020 for climate change mitigation and adaptation projects in developing countries.

Buoyed by national commitments to green growth, the City of Seoul has demonstrated leadership on climate action at the local level within Korea. In 2012, it launched the One Less Nuclear Power Plant initiative to help the city manage energy production and energy efficiency. In the same year, the city brought together citizens, businesses, and the government to develop the Promise of Seoul, a comprehensive climate change strategy that aims to create a safe, healthy city for future generations. The strategy identifies specific goals and intermediate targets for 10 areas – energy, air quality, transportation, resource circulation, water, ecology, urban agriculture, health, safety, and urban planning – with the overarching commitment to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020, and 40 percent by 2030.

To learn from Korea’s successes in climate action, The Asia Foundation’s office in Korea organized a week-long study tour last month for participants from Bangladesh, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. Funded by the Korea Development Institute (KDI) School of Public Policy and Management, the study tour included 14 participants from government, academia, and NGOs who were guided through Korea’s national and municipal planning, policy, and institutional frameworks developed in response to growing climate change threats.

The study tour visited the Smart Grid Information Center and the Climate Change Exhibit Hall in Jeju Island which provided impressive displays of modern emissions reducing technologies.

The study tour visited the Smart Grid Information Center and the Climate Change Exhibit Hall in Jeju Island which provided impressive displays of modern emissions reducing technologies.

Participants had a chance to meet with a number of research institutions, business associations, and NGOs that play a vibrant role in building resilience to climate change in Korea. In particular, visits to the Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements, a nonprofit independent research institute, and the Seoul Institute, the city government’s official think tank, highlighted the importance of such establishments in providing unbiased analyses on climate change vulnerabilities and identifying appropriate policy options for national and local governments. A meeting with the Korea Business Council for Sustainable Development demonstrated private sector interest and willingness to respond to climate change, while a meeting with GGGI highlighted the potential for collaboration on green growth projects in participants’ countries.

Site visits to the Smart Grid Information Center and the Climate Change Exhibit Hall in Jeju Island provided impressive displays of modern emissions reducing technologies. At Yongmeori Coast, where sea level has risen an estimated 22.7cm over the last 30 years, participants were able to see firsthand the impacts of climate change.

Throughout the tour, the role of strong leadership to guide and effect meaningful change at each level of government was evident. However, the need for greater political will in initiating and sustaining climate action emerged as the most crucial and often missing element. As participants return to their home countries, they face the question of how to cultivate this political will. Each country’s answer will inevitably be different, responding to unique local needs and conditions. Even so, continued networking among and learning across countries and cities in the realm of climate change action – as Korea’s leadership and others have already recognized – will be critical in developing effective, lasting local strategies.

Toral Patel is a program officer with The Asia Foundation’s Environment Program, based in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected]. Sunmee Lee is a program officer at The Asia Foundation’s Korea Office and can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.


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