South Korea Emissions Reduction Policy

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South Korea: Second National Energy Principles and the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) System

South Korea’s pledge at COP21 in Paris is to reduce 37% of its GHG emissions from the business-as-usual (BAU, 850.6 MtCO2e) levels by 2030 in all economic sectors. Out of 37%, 25.7% is supposed to be reduced domestically, and 11.3% is to be through International Market Mechanism (IMM). According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), the industrial sector continues to account for the largest share of global energy consumption, and is expected to consume over half of global delivered energy in 2040.1 In South Korea, on the other hand, the energy sector accounts for 87.7% of carbon generation due to a relatively high efficiency in the manufacturing industry. Thus, reducing carbon emission in the energy sector is regarded as crucial, and electricity generation is evaluated as the main culprit of GHG emissions: 45% of the energy sector’s GHG emissions in 2013 was from electricity generation; 30% was from the energy industry; 15% was from transportation; and 9% was from the commercial sector.2

Electricity generated in South Korea was approximately 522 terawatt hours (TWh) in 2015, and the composition of electricity generation by source was as follows: 206 TWh from coal, 164 TWh from nuclear, 104 TWh from gas, 24 TWh from oil, and 23 TWh from renewable sources (including hydroelectricity).3 In terms of facility capacity, the nuclear capacity of 24 reactors occupied approximately 22% of the total capacity in 2014.4 According to the Second National Energy Principles released by the South Korean government in 2014, South Korea aims to increase the portion of nuclear facility capacity from the current level of 22% to 29% by 2035. Furthermore, South Korea aims to increase the portion of electricity generation by nuclear power from 34.9% (as of 2007) to 41.3% (as of 2020) and the portion of renewable sources from 1.0% (2007) to 4.8% (2020).5 Besides the government, South Korean power and utility companies including the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) and Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP) justify the increase in nuclear power use with the South Korea’s pledge at COP21 in Pars.

In order to increase nuclear power capacity, four reactors are currently under construction or in preparation for construction on two sites, Uljin County and Ulsan City, but these are not enough to accomplish the nuclear energy objective. In December 2011, Samcheok City and Youngdeok County were selected as the candidate sites for new nuclear power plants, and then-Ministry of Knowledge Economy (now known as Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy) selected these two as the candidate sites after environmental investigation and deliberation with the relevant authorities.

However, implementing this plan faces a multitude of challenges. Both towns above vetoed the government’s decision through local referendums: Samcheok people held their voluntary referendum on October 8, 2014, with 84.97% opposing the government’s decision (67.94% turnout); Youngdeok held a referendum on November 12, 2015 with a voter turnout of 32.53%, in which 91.7% voted in opposition to the nuclear plan. The South Korean government’s stance is that these referendums are legally ineffective but local opposition is very strong. No further progress has been made to decide on new candidate sites as of September 2016.

Furthermore, after the largest-recorded earthquake (5.8-magnitude by Richter scale) that occurred in Gyeongju City (close to existing nuclear power plants and the site of low and intermediate radioactive waste disposal facility) on September 12, 2016, the South Korean public is becoming increasingly concerned about nuclear safety issues. In the political realm, there are more opposition voices at the National Assembly (the legislative body) after progressive parties won majority seats after the general election held on April 13, 2016. If the existing plan of increasing nuclear power capacity does not go well because of this sociopolitical opposition, South Korea’s policies to accomplish the target pledged in Paris may need revision.

Meanwhile, South Korea changed its renewable energy policy from Feed-in Tariff (FIT) to Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) Systems on January 1, 2012, which mandates that power producers which have power generating facilities with installed capacity over 500MW produce a minimum proportion of their power using new and renewable energy sources. This policy change was essential to lowering the government’s energy-related financial burden and expanding the supply of renewable energy; according to South Korea’s aims, renewable energy would account for more than 10% of electricity generation after 2022. Some significant changes have been made since South Korea adopted RPS. Between 2001 and 2011 when FIT was implemented, the newly built renewable power plants capacity was only 0.9GW, but for the first 30 months since RPS was implemented, the newly built renewable power plants capacity reached 3.2GW.6 However, problems still remain; renewable energy production after RPS was adopted is mostly dependent on low-cost renewable energy, and it is too demanding for medium and small firms to participate in. As a result, the percentage of solar power that is relatively more accessible for smaller firms dropped from 50.7% (between 2001 and 2011 while FIT implemented) to 29.3% (between 2012 and 2014 Q2). Meanwhile, the percentage of bio energy increased sharply from 7.6% to 31.6%.

1    U.S. Energy Information Administration, Chapter 7. “Industrial sector energy consumption” <>
2     Ryu, Jae-hyun and Choong-hyun Kim, “The Era of Energy 2℃ is coming.” Mirae Asset Daewoo Research (May 2016). pp.3-9.
3    Korea Atomic Industrial Forum, <>
4     Korea Energy Economics Institute, Monthly Energy Statistics, September  2016, pp.68-69.
5     Yang, Maeng-ho, Jonghee Lee, and Su-eun Kim, “New (Post-2020) System for Climate Change and Nuclear.” Nuclear Policy Brief Report (Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, January 2016). pp.11-12.
6     Lee, Yong-beom, “Adopting RPS and Changes in Business Environment.” Korea Investors Service PF Research (October 2014). pp.2-3.


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