South Korea is on track to set a 2050 carbon neutrality goal and end coal financing after its ruling Democratic Party won an absolute majority in the country’s parliamentary elections on Wednesday.
President Moon Jae-in’s party won a landslide 180 seats in the 300-member National Assembly, up from 120 previously, in a huge show of faith in his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
The election was one of the first nationwide polls to take place since the start of the pandemic, but the threat of Covid-19 did not deter voters from casting their ballot, with a record turnout.
Voters had to wear a mask and gloves and use hand sanitiser, with those failing a temperature check directed to special booths.
The Democratic Party’s decisive victory will enable President Moon to press ahead with its newly adopted Green New Deal agenda during the last two years of his mandate.
Under the plan, South Korea has become the first country in East Asia to pledge to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
As part of the Paris Agreement, countries have agreed to submit updated climate plans to 2030 and long-term decarbonisation strategies to the UN before the end of the year.
In its climate manifesto published last month, the Democratic Party promised to pass a “Green New Deal” law that would steer the country’s transformation into a low-carbon economy.
The manifesto explicitly referred to the “Green New Deal” plans of Democratic candidates in the US and the EU’s “Green Deal for Europe”, under which the European Commission promised to make the EU the first carbon-neutral continent.
The plan includes large-scale investments in renewable energy, the introduction of a carbon tax, the phase out of domestic and overseas coal financing by public institutions, and the creation of a Regional Energy Transition Centre to support workers transition to green jobs.
The Democratic Party also pledged to develop a medium to long-term roadmap to achieve its goal and campaigners are pressing President Moon to come up with a clear timeline and policies to meet it.
Jessica Yun, of the South Korean advocate group Solutions For Our Climate (SFOC), told Climate Home News she now expected climate change and energy issues to become more prominent within the national political debate.
“It is a positive sign that the ruling Democratic Party has successfully brought in environmental leaders from the coal phase-out and energy transition movement,” she said.
“This is a clear mandate and opportunity for the party to implement these policies,” said Ursula Fuentes Hutfilter, a senior climate policy advisor specialised in the Asia-Pacific region at research group Climate Analytics.
She added that for the Democratic Party to turn its promises into something credible it needed to take “concrete steps”, including updating its 2030 emissions target and developing a clear roadmap to phase out coal power.
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Under its existing climate plan, South Korea pledged to cut emissions 37% below projected business-as-usual levels by 2030. An increase of the target was not mentioned in the Democratic Party’s climate platform.
Climate Action Tracker ranked that target as “highly insufficient” to meet the goal of the Paris deal to limit global warming to “well below 2C”.
South Korea is the world’s seventh largest carbon emitter. Coal represents about 40% of the country’s energy mix and Seoul has not yet agreed on a national phase-out date.
The country is also one of the biggest funders of coal projects abroad. In 2016 and 2017, it provided $1.1 billion of public finance for the construction of new coal plants overseas, according to the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).
As of this year, South Korea has 60 coal fired plant units, accounting for a third of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, and another seven units under construction, according to Climate Analytics. It said Seoul would have to phase out coal by 2029 to do its fair share to tackle climate change.