On 30 June 2015 South Korea submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to the UNFCCC, putting forward an economy-wide target to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 37% below business-as-usual (BAU) emissions of 850.6 MtCO2e by 2030. This is equivalent to limiting GHG emissions in 2030 at 536 MtCO2e (81% above 1990 emission levels) excluding land-use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF). We rate this target “inadequate.” To be in a “medium” pathway by 2030 South Korea's emissions would need to be below 500 MtCO2e per year, which is lower than levels in the year 2000.
South Korea intends to achieve part of this target by using “carbon credits from international market mechanisms” (Republic of Korea, 2015). In its INDC submission South Korea has not specified which part of the target is to be achieved by international market mechanisms. The South Korean Government has, however, stated that a 25.7% reduction below BAU will be achieved domestically and a further 11.3% reduction will be achieved by international market mechanisms (Ministry of Environment, 2015).
This target allows domestic greenhouse gas emissions to more than double compared to 1990 levels excluding LULUCF by 2030. Given that current emission levels are already above the 2030 target level, emissions would need to peak and start declining to be on track for the INDC target.
South Korea’s INDC states that “In assessment of mitigation performance, a decision will be made at a later stage on whether to include greenhouse gas emissions and sinks of the land sector as well as the method for doing so” (Republic of Korea, 2015). Our current analysis treats South Korea’s INDC target to be excluding LULUCF. Given that South Korea’s LULUCF emissions have been a small sink in the past and are projected to remain a sink, including LULUCF emissions would weaken the impact of the INDC on the other sectors.
The “inadequate” rating indicates that South Korea’s proposed target is not in line with interpretations of a “fair” approach to reach a 2°C pathway. This means the INDC is not consistent with holding warming below 2°C unless other countries make much deeper reductions and comparably greater effort: if most other countries followed South Korea’s proposed approach global warming would exceed 3–4°C.
There are several general concerns in relation to South Korea's INDC, apart from the quantitative inadequacy of the ambition level. First, South Korea is relying upon a reduction from business as usual whereas its economic circumstances would point towards it taken on a national, legally binding limit, in common with countries at similar levels of economic development. The quantitative outcome of a business as usual goal is hard to predict as far ahead as 2030, and there will always be contested interpretations of what business as usual actually means. Second, South Korea has not put forward an INDC for 2025, indicating the risk of a serious locking-in of "inadequate" emission levels for 2030. If all countries followed this approach, 2°C could well be unreachable from emission levels implied by these policies for 2030. Finally, South Korea has left open the accounting of LULUCF (foresty) activities which as we see in many other countries is a potentially big problem.
Earlier, South Korea pledged to reduce its emissions by 30% below BAU emissions in 2020 (84% above 1990 emission levels). We rated this pledge “medium.” The “medium” rating for 2020 indicates that South Korea’s climate plans, if implemented, are at the least ambitious end of what would be a fair contribution.
In the period 2010–2012, South Korea’s emissions exceeded the BAU projections used as the reference for this pledge. In January 2015 an emissions trading scheme (ETS) was launched. The absolute emissions cap for phase I (2015–2017) of this scheme is not stringent enough to bring South Korea’s emissions on track to meet its 2020 pledge. Depending on the design of the ETS after phase I, the ETS could bring emissions levels on track to meet the domestic part of South Korea’s 2030 target.
On 30 June 2015 South Korea submitted its INDC proposing an economy-wide target to reduce GHG emissions by 37% below business-as-usual (BAU) emissions of 850.6 MtCO2e by 2030. In absolute terms this is a target of 536 MtCO2e excluding land-use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) (equivalent to 81% above 1990 emission levels).
South Korea intends to achieve a 25.7% emissions reduction below BAU domestically (equivalent to 115% above 1990 emission levels excluding LULUCF) - one of the four options ranging from 14.7% to 31.3% below by BAU by 2030 South Korea announced for its INDC earlier in June (Korea Herald, 2015). The remaining 11.3% will be achieved through international market mechanisms.
South Korea’s INDC is an economy-wide pledge covering all greenhouse gases. A decision on the inclusion of the LULUCF sector will be made a later stage (Republic of Korea, 2015). Our current analysis treats South Korea’s INDC target to be excluding LULUCF. South Korea’s LULUCF sector has been a small sink of around 50 MtCO2e in the past (UNFCCC, 2015) and are projected to remain a sink of 24 MtCO2e by 2020 (Republic of Korea, 2012). Therefore, including LULUCF emissions would weaken the INDC.
Under the Copenhagen Accord, South Korea agreed to reduce its emissions by 30% below business-as-usual (BAU) emissions in 2020. The unconditional target was proposed in November 2009 and submitted to the Copenhagen Accord on 25 January 2010.
In its Third National Communication (2012), South Korea lowered its BAU projections to 776 MtCO2e in 2020 from projections provided earlier of 813 MtCO2e. It notes: “this recalculation does not change the 30% reduction goal rate.” South Korea is the only country that increased the stringency of its pledge (in terms of associated absolute emission target to be achieved) by correcting BAU emissions downwards. Notably, the 2020 BAU value presented in South Korea’s INDC is slightly higher at 782 MtCO2e.
Under the BAU projections from the Third National Communication, the pledge would result in emissions of 543 MtCO2e in 2020 excluding land-use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF). This represents an increase of 84% in GHG’s from 1990 emissions levels. In 2014, the Ministry of Environment published its roadmap for achieving national greenhouse gas reduction targets. This roadmap confirmed the BAU projections from the Third National Communication and the emissions reduction pledge, and provides a sectoral breakdown of the emissions reductions. If the 2020 pledge were to be aligned with the BAU from South Korea’s INDC, the pledge would be weakened to 548 MtCO2e (equivalent to 86% above 1990 emission levels).
We rate South Korea’s 2030 target “inadequate”. The “inadequate” rating indicates that the South Korea’s INDC is not in line with interpretations of a “fair” approach to reach a 2°C pathway. This means the INDC is not consistent with limiting warming to below 2°C unless other countries make much deeper reductions and comparably greater effort.
We rated South Korea’s pledge for 2020 “medium”. The pledge is in line with approaches that focus on responsibility and staged approaches .
South Korea's emissions have more than doubled between 1990 and 2012. Emissions steeply increased in the early 1990s. Growth then continued at a slower pace, and is continuing to slow down. Actual emissions levels in the period 2010–2012 were above the BAU projections from the Third National Communication. Among the OECD members, South Korea is one of the fastest growing emitters. The high export rates from Korea’s manufacturing industry play a critical role in Korea’s increasing emission levels (Kim et al., 2015).
It is unlikely that South Korea will meet its 2020 pledge with its currently implemented policies. Whether emissions grow or start declining towards the 2030 INDC target in the coming years depends on the final design and implementation of the emissions trading system (ETS). Current implemented policies are estimated to lead to emissions levels ranging between 745 and 756 MtCO2e in 2020 (153% to 157% above 1990 levels) and between 669 and 796 MtCO2e in 2030 (127 to 170% above 1990 levels), excluding emissions from land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF). LULUCF emissions have historically been a sink of between 26 and 41 MtCO2e and are projected to remain a sink of 24 MtCO2e by 2020 (Republic of Korea, 2012).
South Korea’s power demand increased by 162% over the period 1990–2013 and is dominated by coal-fired (45% in 2013) and nuclear generation (26% in 2013) (IEA, 2014). In June 2015 South Korea announced it would cancel four planned new coal-fired power plants with a combined capacity of 3740 MW. At the same time, it announced two new planned nuclear reactors, bringing the total of planned nuclear reactors to 13 (Reuters, 2015). In the 7th Electricity Supply Plan, planned to be finalised by the end of June 2015, South Korea targets the following electricity supply mix by 2029: 18.5% nuclear, 32.2% coal, 24.7% LNG, 4.6% renewable, 5.8% combined heat and power and 4.2% oil and pumped storage. This represents a decrease in coal and an increase in nuclear compared to the previous Electricity Supply Plan.
South Korea has successfully implemented its Green Growth Strategy, a comprehensive policy package targeting all policy areas including climate change. One of its key policies is the cap and trade scheme introduced in January 2015.
In 2012, South Korea introduced the Target Management System (TMS), which covered 60% of total emissions. The TMS was a precursor to the emissions trading scheme (ETS) Full implementation of the ETS started in January 2015 and covers all installations in the industrial and power sectors with annual emissions higher than 25 ktCO2e. The ETS system does cover both direct and indirect emissions (emissions electricity use). In Phase I of the ETS (2015–2017) the absolute emissions cap will decrease from 573 MtCO2e in 2015, to 562 MtCO2e in 2016 and 551 MtCO2e in 2017 (Carbon Market Watch, 2015).
This cap is not stringent enough to bring South Korea’s emissions on track for its 2020 pledge and we estimate that this phase of the ETS will not result in additional emission reductions. To meet the 2020 pledge, a much stronger annual decrease of the cap is needed after 2017. The caps for Phase II (2018–2020) and Phase III (2021–2025) have not been announced.
The Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) was introduced in 2012 and is replacing a previous feed-in tariff scheme. The new standard is obliging suppliers to meet annual generation targets from renewable energy. They begin with 2% and increase to 10% in 2022 (Kemco, 2013). South Korea has already started implementing renewable energy technologies but is still dependent on coal, so the reduction effect is low compared to its potential.
For the residential building sector, the government has set up a subsidy program that aims to power one million homes with renewable sources such as geothermal, solar PV, small wind or thermal solar. Fifty percent of the costs for each household will be subsidised. So far, the annual increase rate of the scheme, as well as the supporting modalities, seem to be successful and therefore we assume that the target will be reached.
In 2009 South Korea has set an emission standard of 140 g/km in 2015 for light-duty vehicles. In December 2014 the emission standard was strengthened and a standard of 97 g/km in 2020 was adopted.
Historical emissions in South Korea were taken from the national inventories submitted to UNFCCC (2015). BAU projections for the 2020 pledge were taken from the Third National Communication (Republic of Korea, 2012). The resulting targeted emissions level is in line with the Roadmap for achieving national greenhouse gas reduction targets (Ministry of Environment, 2014).
The 2030 INDC target was calculated based on the accompanying BAU scenario (Republic of Korea, 2015). The target is calculated excluding LULUCF emissions.
Current policy projections
Current trend projections are based on the International Energy Outlook 2013 Reference case projections for CO2 emissions from fuel combustion only until 2030 (EIA, 2013) and the US EPA non-CO2 emission projections until 2030 (USEPA, 2012). The International Energy Outlook 2013 projections are further updated to include the fuel mix from the 7th Electricity Supply Plan, the Renewable Portfolio Standard, the “1 Million Green Homes” Project, the ETS and the 2020 emission standard for light-duty vehicles.
The ETS system is assumed to cover from 67.7% (Republic of Korea, 2015) of business-as-usual emissions. For phase I (2015-2017) the absolute cap is applied, which is not expected to result in emission savings compared to the International Energy Outlook 2013 Reference case projections (adapted based on the 7th Electricity Supply Plan). Since no information on the design of phase II and III of the ETS is available yet, the range reflects two possible pathways from 2018 to 2030; 1) The cap remains at the 2017 cap; 2) The cap continues to decrease at the same rate over the period 2008-2025. Overlap between the emission reductions resulting from the Renewable Portfolio Standard and the “1 Million Green Homes” Project and the ETS is assumed to range from 25% to 75%. The emission reductions resulting from 2020 emission standard for light-duty vehicles is calculated based on ICCT (2012).
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 Due to the inclusion of more effort sharing studies, the “sufficient” and “medium” range for South Korea have changed compared to the assessments in previous years. As a result of this, we changed the rating of this pledge “sufficient” to “medium”, even though there has been no change in the pledged emissions level for 2020. Notably, we decreased the lower end of the “sufficient” range as a result of the inclusion of approaches that focus on equal cumulative per capita emissions. The upper end of the “medium” and “sufficient” range is lowered because of economic development in South Korea that we had not included in the studies used in earlier assessments. The increasing GDP level leads to more stringent fair shares in approaches that focus on, for example, capability.