South Korea: (1) Meet existing Paris Agreement pledge before making a new pledge; (2) Promote the use of renewable energy though the deregulation of its current energy system.
At COP 21, South Korea pledged “to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 37% from the business-as-usual (BAU, 850.6 MtCO2eq) level by 2030 across all economic sectors.” Some critics would see South Korea’s INDC as pretty defensive. For instance, the Climate Action Tracker evaluated South Korea’s target as “inadequate” (The Climate Action Tracker). However, considering South Korea’s current energy portfolio, especially heavy dependence on fossil fuels, it would be pretty challenging to accomplish this target. In 2015, South Korea’s primary energy consumption is composed as follows: 41% from petroleum and other liquids, 31% from coal, 14% from natural gas, 13% from nuclear, and 1% from renewable sources. More than 85% of South Korea’s primary energy consumption is from fossil fuels—the major culprits of greenhouse gases. Without major changes in policies, it would be difficult to substantially reduce this level of fossil fuel consumption while not damaging its economy.
South Korea’s original plan for its INDC target was mainly focusing on expanding its nuclear power capacity. In its Second Basic Plan for Energy published in January 2014, South Korea set up a target for increasing nuclear power capacity from its current share of 22% up to 29% by 2035. However, its original plan now faces significant challenges mainly because of political changes.
The new Moon Jae-in administration, which was inaugurated on May 10, 2017 after the long political turbulence involving Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, declared that South Korea will phase out coal and nuclear power ultimately as responses to growing public concerns about air pollution and nuclear safety. The new administration’s numeric targets are not set up yet, but it already decided on the permanent shutdown of the country’s oldest nuclear reactor and temporary shutdown of aged coal power plants. Additionally, President Moon appointed Paik Un-kyu, who is an engineering professor and a well-known renewable energy expert/ advocate as the new minister of trade, industry and energy, which indicates that the new administration will prioritize renewable energy.
From the perspective of climate change policies, it is complicated to judge the Moon administration’s policy direction. The new administration’s anti-nuclear policies are somewhat incompatible with its INDC pledge. In order to fill up possible gaps in electricity generation, the new administration is trying to expand electricity generation from gas power plants, like Japan did after its shutdown of nuclear power plants after the Fukushima nuclear accident. Natural gas combustion is relatively better in terms of greenhouse gas emission compared to coal. Nonetheless, it cannot be more competitive than nuclear energy. If South Korea expands natural gas consumption significantly in the coming years for power generation, it would be more difficult for South Korea to comply with its INDC target.
Therefore, I would recommend the followings for South Korea. First, it needs to recalculate its electricity demand projections. The country’s original plan of expanding nuclear capacity needs to be reviewed because South Korea’s economy is entering in a mature stage with slow growth rate and its population growth is also slowing down. However, sudden reductions in nuclear power that has occupied more than 30% of electricity generation can bring negative side effects too. Expanding natural gas consumption for electricity generation cannot be the best alternative the from perspectives of energy security and climate change policies.
South Korea needs to set up a long-term strategy that moves towards the use of renewables to meet electricity demands. It also needs to make reforms in its electricity market. South Korea’s electricity transmission and distribution market still remains vertically integrated while the power generation market has been liberalized. As long as electricity trades remain rigid and difficult, it will be difficult to sustainably increase renewable energy. South Korea’s new government needs to work on how to facilitate electricity trades and transactions which can be the major motivation for consumers to transfer themselves to energy producers too.