SEOUL — South Korea is rolling out a new “carbon-free” campaign at this year’s COP28 that it says will reposition Seoul as a global leader in decarbonization. But climate experts and advocates say the plan, which promotes some fossil fuel power generation, merely masks South Korea’s dependence on nonrenewable energy sources.
The country’s “carbon-free energy” plan promotes an array of energy sources that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions — like solar and wind — but states that “renewables alone cannot save the world.”
A key part of the plan is the formation of a public-private group called the “Carbon Free Alliance,” led by the country’s biggest manufacturing conglomerates and its state-run utility company, according to an early “concept paper” obtained by The Washington Post. The companies will be “publicly certified” when they undertake efforts to be carbon-free, including by using nuclear, hydrogen and renewable energy. But it also includes fossil fuel power generation with carbon capture and storage.
The proposal underscores the country’s reliance on its manufacturing industry and its influence over South Korea’s climate policy.
Renewable energy accounted for 8.9 percent of South Korea’s electricity generation mix in 2022, which is the lowest among major economies. Coal and natural gas accounted for 60 percent, and nuclear was 29.6 percent, data show.
Government officials are now circulating the proposal at international business events and global summits — including at COP in Dubai this month — and aim to release a finalized plan next year.
“It’s a pity. It’s kind of a rollback” on South Korea’s climate commitments, said Yun Sun-jin, dean of the Graduate School of Environmental Studies at Seoul National University. “We should expand the share of renewable energy, and we should reduce our energy demand itself through energy conservation and efficiency improvement.”
South Korea last week joined 118 countries at COP28 in pledging to collectively triple the world’s renewable energy capacity by 2030. The pledge acknowledges “different starting points, national circumstances and the unique realities of different regions.” South Korea is heavily dependent on emissions-heavy energy, and manufacturing sectors have a particularly long way to go in increasing its renewable energy supply.
Under President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office last year, Seoul has focused on expanding nuclear power, which is popular with the public but has long been scrutinized because of concerns over its safety and the challenge of disposing of radioactive waste.
South Korea wants to increase the nuclear proportion of its energy sources to almost 35 percent by 2036. This includes building more small modular nuclear reactors, which produce low-carbon electricity and are becoming increasingly popular as countries seek alternatives to burning fossil fuels.
Under Yoon, South Korea reduced its renewable energy target to about 22 percent by 2030 — 9 percentage points lower than under his predecessor.
Asked about South Korea’s “carbon-free” plan and its slow transition to renewables, South Korean officials say they are taking a pragmatic approach because of the “tough conditions” of a manufacturing-dependent economy.
“The manufacturing industry is very developed, and these industries use a lot of electricity,” said Lee Han-chul, director of the industrial environment division at the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy. “For example, semiconductor factories need large amounts of continuous energy.”
Geographical constraints, such as lack of flat landscapes for solar panels, also make it more difficult to ramp up renewable energy production quickly, South Korean officials said.
But independent analysts say South Korea has other renewable energy options and can overcome land mass challenges through regulatory changes.
“Korea has huge wind potential, particularly offshore wind — arguably better than the U.K., which is the world leader in wind power,” said Sam Kimmins, director of energy for the Climate Group, a nonprofit that supports renewable energy transitions.
Lee said South Korea is committed to reducing fossil fuel dependence and will listen to feedback from the international community about its proposal, which he emphasized is in its early stage.
Cho Hong-sik, a presidential special envoy, gave a speech at COP28 last weekend calling on the international community to join the nation’s Carbon Free Energy initiative, describing it as “a realistic” solution to achieving carbon neutrality, according to a news release.
The debate in South Korea over how to meet its climate target has become highly politicized in recent years.
Under previous president Moon Jae-in, South Korea aggressively pushed new renewable energy projects such as solar and wind, and tried to phase out nuclear energy amid lingering fears over nuclear energy after the Fukushima disaster in neighboring Japan. But Moon’s push for renewables faced significant pushback, especially by the country’s energy-hungry industries, and led to rampant mismanagement.
The Yoon administration is taking a new tack, but advocates and experts say South Korea has yet to embrace solutions that would make renewable energy more available and quickly, such as simplifying the permitting process for new offshore wind projects.
“As a leading economy and a major emitter, South Korea must hold itself to the highest climate standards,” said Jonathan Pershing, former U.S. envoy for climate change. “That means rapidly accelerating its deployment of renewable energy and speeding its transition away from coal, oil, and gas.”
Seoul’s proposal to use carbon capture technology has raised more eyebrows.
Companies are increasingly using carbon capture technology as they transition away from fossil fuels, by capturing carbon dioxide from power plants and burying the CO2 deep into the ground. In the United States, for example, the Biden administration is offering tax credits to pay companies to capture CO2.
But captured CO2 can also be used to extract more oil, rather than be buried underground — which activists say is just a way for oil and gas companies to continue their carbon-emitting operations.
South Korea’s strategies to put into action its commitments under the Paris agreement, a global climate accord, “fall short of what will be needed” to achieve its target, according to research by Nathan Hultman, director of University of Maryland’s Center for Global Sustainability. Hultman is a former senior adviser for the Biden administration’s climate envoy, John F. Kerry.
“The discussion this year [at COP28] is going to be, ‘Hey, we’re not on track. What do we need to do to accelerate the action in the next couple of years? Countries, including Korea, are going to need to put forward a new national target by 2025. So how are they going to be thinking of about this transition — now?” Hultman said.
That means governments need to be thinking about their strategy beyond solely a carbon-free framing, he said.
“If the focus by a government is just on carbon, they’re either deliberately or accidentally — neither one is good — ignoring a lot of the other emissions that cause climate change, so we have to recognize that ‘carbon free’ is a little bit too narrow of a framing,” Hultman said.
Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.