Frank Rijsberman, director-general of the Global Green Growth Institute, shares his thoughts on South Korea's approach to climate action. Photo by: GGGI

South Korea is behind the curve as far as climate change is concerned, but focusing efforts on tackling air pollution could be the way to change that, says Frank Rijsberman, director-general of the Global Green Growth Institute.

“South Korea is coming a little bit late to the party, but the current government is announcing relatively big projects to invest in renewable energy, both wind and solar.”

— Frank Rijsberman, director-general, Global Green Growth Institute

“Frankly, there's much more interest and awareness on air pollution than there is of climate change,” said Rijsberman. According to the Climate Action Tracker, South Korea’s 2030 nationally determined contribution to climate action is “highly insufficient.”

While the two issues are not the same, Rijsberman said that the actions to tackle both — replacing fossil fuel with renewable energy sources and reducing energy consumption — are aligned, and so encouraging action around air pollution could improve climate action.

Air pollution currently causes the premature death of 4 million people per year in the Asia-Pacific region.

Speaking to Devex, Rijsberman described how the new Campaign for Blue Skies and NetZero 2050 in South Korea, created by GGGI and a number of partners, will simultaneously create awareness of both issues and generate private sector interest, while also discussing how the development community can help South Korea on its climate action journey.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you explain the current status in South Korea with regards to climate change?

South Korea is not exactly one of the leaders. It’s a highly industrialized country, and we’re seeing a very low penetration of renewable energy. I think South Korea has been behind the curve as far as climate action is concerned. A few years ago, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s first priority was much more focused on security than climate and environment, and there was more of a public debate on stopping nuclear power plants than coal and climate-related action.

Learn about the Blue Skies and NetZero 2050 campaign. Via YouTube.

What is the general attitude toward climate change in South Korea now? What are the main efforts to reduce global warming?

We had a very serious air pollution crisis last winter where, for a few days, air quality became purple [indicating “very unhealthy”] and we had many days when it was red [indicating “unhealthy”] — if you follow the Environmental Performance Index. Now everybody is wearing a face mask because of coronavirus, but last year, a very large number of people were wearing the same face masks for air pollution.

We do a lot of messaging around air pollution and climate change being two sides of the same coin. While they’re not exactly the same, certainly all the things we need to do — reduce the use of coal, reduce the use of diesel buses, and so on — are the same.

Do you think more needs to be done in the country to tackle climate change?

Yes, definitely. So far, the use of renewable energy is one of the lowest among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. There is a lot of use of coal-fired power plants and a relatively low penetration of renewable energy. The government has set up relatively aggressive targets to increase that, but it means going from around 6% of renewable energy use to 20% by 2030.

That was seen as very aggressive, and a number of people were questioning whether that was even possible. But, from a more international perspective, 20% is still a relatively modest target. Helping people to see that 20% by 2030 is not a very ambitious target — and, in fact, is not far enough — is a key message in a lot of our engagement.

What is GGGI’s role in helping South Korea tackle climate change?

Our normal role is to get support from South Korea to work in other countries, but Campaign for Blue Skies and NetZero 2050 is one of our first significant programs in South Korea itself. We initiated this campaign and are now leading it together with a Korean nongovernmental organization, the Climate Change Center. We’re pulling together both international support — particularly through embassies here in South Korea — and then Korean organizations to increase both the public awareness of climate change and support for more ambitious climate action. That's expressed through these concrete goals of NetZero 2050.

The  Campaign for Blue Skies and NetZero 2050 in South Korea was launched to raise public awareness of air pollution and climate crises in the country.

The second key goal of this campaign is to garner more public support for an end to South Korean support for coal-fired power plants because they are still being built in countries like Mongolia with Korean subsidies or credit guarantees.

We also know that quite a few businesses and ministries of energy and industry ministries are not convinced that it’s actually a feasible target. We want to share experiences — like those of the United Kingdom, Denmark, and other countries — and show that it is possible to have the private sector support such goals.

What can others in the development space do to help South Korea in tackling climate change?

A key area where we'd like South Korea to change is in its own development policies. Korea is still supporting the thermal power plants and coal-fired power plants in its development projects. We would like Korea to give that up, and so if others in the development space who have made such a commitment could share that with South Korea as well, that would be a big help.

Campaign for Blue Skies and NetZero 2050

The campaign aims to bring together business, labor, and civil society to speak around a common vision for the Korean society and economy.

This is necessary to influence government to announce an ambitious, enabling policy that business and industry society needs to deliver bold climate action.

Read more here.

Are there lessons you think others can learn from the NetZero 2050 campaign and even from South Korea's approach to the situation?

South Korea is coming a little bit late to the party, but the current government is announcing relatively big projects to invest in renewable energy, both wind and solar. The first large offshore wind projects have been announced, so there are definitely lessons for other emerging economies.

The country is also now investing quite a bit in research projects to increase the efficiency of solar panels. There are a few relatively large factories producing solar panels, and the country has some producers for components of wind turbines. So there are some promising signs that South Korea could develop a renewable energy industry of its own.

To join the Campaign for Blue Skies and NetZero 2050, click here.

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