South Korea formally commits to cutting emissions to net zero by 2050

President Moon Jae-in’s announcement follows a three-day visit by Cop26 president-designate Alok Sharma to South Korea

Hadong coal power plant in South Korea. President Moon Jae-in has pledged to replace coal power with renewable energy. (Photo: Solutions For Our Climate)

By

President Moon Jae-in has announced South Korea will commit to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, turning an election promise into a policy pledge.  

“Together with the international community, we will actively respond to climate change and aim for carbon neutrality by 2050,” he said in a speech to parliament on Wednesday — reaffirming plans for a Green New Deal that voters overwhelmingly backed in April. 

“By replacing coal power generation with renewable energy, we will create new markets and industries and create jobs,” he said. 

Moon’s announcement came two days after Japan committed to the 2050 net zero target and said it would rethink its reliance on coal. Last month, China stunned the world when it pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060

The recent announcements from Japan and China have definitely put pressure on Korea to announce a target year for carbon neutrality,” Joojin Kim, managing director of South Korean campaign group Solutions For Our Climate, told Climate Home News. 

Analysis: Who will build the world’s last coal plant?

In July, Moon presented plans for a $37 billion Green New Deal aimed at boosting green infrastructure, clean energy and electric vehicles by 2025. On Wednesday, he announced a further $7 billion spending on carbon-cutting measures. 

“We are replacing old buildings and public rental housing with eco-friendly facilities and investing 2.4 trillion [korean won] in the green transition for urban spaces and daily infrastructure,” Moon said.

As part of its Green New Deal, South Korea aims to have 1.13 million electric and 200,000 hydrogen vehicles on the roads by 2025. 

Moon’s announcement coincided with a visit from Cop26 president-designate and UK business and energy minister Alok Sharma. Sharma said in a tweet President Moon’s announcement followed a “very productive 72 hours of meetings with govt ministers, parliamentarians, businesses & international organisations”.

As figurehead for the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow, UK next November, Sharma is seeking to mobilise higher climate ambition from other governments.

Campaigners welcomed South Korea’s net zero pledge but warned it will take a complete coal phase-out to meet its goal. 

South Korea has 36 GW of coal power capacity, which provides over 40% of the country’s electricity generation, and a further 7.2 GW is under construction, according to Global Energy Monitor data. Renewables currently make up less than 6% of the country’s energy mix. 

Analysis by Climate Analytics found South Korea must increase its 2030 emissions reduction target from 37% to at least 74%, and half its emissions in the next decade if it is to meet its Paris commitments. 

Kim told Climate Home the government would need to overhaul its coal policy to meet the 2050 goal.  “The most urgent tasks are enhancing its 2030 emissions reduction target, presenting a clear roadmap to phase out coal by 2030, and putting a complete stop to coal financing,” he said. 

Philippines declares moratorium on new coal power plants

South Korea is one of the three biggest public financiers of overseas coal projects globally, according to Solutions For Our Climate. In July, South Korean lawmakers proposed a bill that would end financing for overseas coal projects but campaigners say it remains unclear whether the proposal has a majority support in parliament. 

“We are waiting for the government to announce a total moratorium on overseas coal project financing and exit from freshly greenlit projects in Indonesia (Jawa 9, 10) and Vietnam (Vung Ang 2),” Kim said. 

The announcement puts pressure on other major emitters such as Australia and the US to ramp up their climate ambition. Four of Australia’s top ten trading partners, the UK, Japan, China and South Korea, have all set net zero targets, potentially dampening demand for its coal exports.

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison said he would not change Australia’s climate policy in response to the news. “I am not concerned about our future exports. Australia will set our policies here. Our policies won’t be set in the United Kingdom, they won’t be set in Brussels, they won’t be set in any part of the world other than here,” he told reporters on Wednesday. 

Read more on: Asia | Climate politics | COP26 | Net zero | | |