South Korea is making progress in climate change mitigation and energy sector planning, but lacks the necessary speed and stringency it needs to get onto a pathway compatible with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C temperature limit.
The NDC announced at COP26 and submitted to the UNFCCC in December 2021 sets a target to reduce emissions by 40% below 2018 levels by 2030. This target is a significant improvement compared to South Korea’s previous NDC of 24.4% below 2017 levels but does not improve the overall CAT rating of “Highly insufficient”. Deducting the suggested contribution of forestry and reductions overseas, the target translates into a 32% reduction of domestic emissions by 2030, compared to 2018. To meet the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C temperature limit, the CAT estimates that a domestic emissions reduction of at least 59% by 2030 is needed.
South Korea has also progressed on the development of its net-zero target, now evaluated “average” by CAT. The Framework Act on Carbon Neutrality and Green Growth enshrines carbon-neutrality by 2050 in law. Following the Framework Act, South Korea released the 2050 carbon neutrality scenarios in October 2021 that include roadmaps on a sector-level and suggest possible policy measures. If those roadmaps were implemented, they would also lead to emissions reductions before 2030 and decrease the CAT projections under policies and action.
In 2020, the share of coal-fired power generation decreased from 43% to 39%, compensated by increases from LNG, nuclear, and solar. This shift resulted in a record-low emissions intensity of South Korea’s electricity sector. However, the share of fossil fuels remains very large, at 67% in 2020, and while the share of renewables in the sector has doubled in the last five years, it remains small at around 6% and is considerably lower than the EU, Japan, and the US.
The Ninth Electricity plan, published in December 2020, sets clear electricity mix targets, confirming the Moon administration’s intention to shift electricity generation away from coal. The plan targets a 2030 power mix of 30% coal (from 40% in Eighth Plan), 25% nuclear, 23% LNG, 21% renewables, and 1% from other sources. We estimate the new plan would lead to a 5% reduction in total emissions compared to the previous plan, due almost entirely to a shift away from coal and lower forecast electricity demand. Although this plan from last year represents an improvement from the previous revision, coal is only phased out by 2054. Under the draft 2050 carbon neutral scenarios, coal is phased out before 2050. To be Paris-compatible, coal must be phased-out by 2030 at the latest and the role of LNG also needs to decrease significantly in parallel.
The revised Renewable Energy Law, passed in March 2021, strengthens South Korea’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, requiring major electricity utilities to increase their renewables share to 25% by 2034, from 10% by 2023.
In July 2021, the Government communicated updates to the Korean New Deal, which also increases the budget for the Green New Deal by about 40%, up to 61 trillion won (~52 bn USD).
The CAT rates South Korea’s climate targets and policies as “Highly insufficient”. The “Highly insufficient” rating indicates that South Korea’s climate policies and commitments are not consistent with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C temperature limit.
South Korea’s domestic 2030 target is rated “Insufficient” when compared to modelled domestic pathways. If all countries pursued this level of ambition, it would lead to 3°C of warming. To achieve its target, South Korea would need to enhance its policies and action, which are rated “Highly insufficient” and are currently only compatible with up to 4°C of warming compared to modelled domestic pathways.
We rate South Korea’s NDC target including the emissions reductions abroad as “Highly insufficient” when compared with its fair-share contribution to climate action. South Korea should also significantly increase the domestic component of its emissions reduction target, to get on a 1.5°C Paris Agreement compatible pathway.
We rate South Korea’s policies and action as “Highly insufficient”. The “Highly insufficient” rating indicates that South Korea’s policies and action in 2030 are not at all consistent with the 1.5°C temperature limit. If all countries were to follow South Korea’s approach, warming could reach over 3°C and up to 4°C.
South Korea’s climate neutrality target is enshrined in law through the Framework Act on Carbon Neutrality and Green Growth (Carbon Neutrality Act) (see also our assessment on net-zero). The Act introduces a climate impact assessment, which is aimed to assess the climate impacts of major national plans and development projects. Emissions reductions targets will now be integrated into national budget planning through the climate-responsive budgeting program. The Act also sets up a climate response fund, which will be used to support the structural transformation of carbon-intense industries.
Following the Framework Act, South Korea released 2050 carbon neutrality scenarios that include possible roadmaps on a sector-level and suggest possible policy measures (Republic of Korea, 2021c). If those roadmaps were implemented, they would also lead to emissions reductions before 2030 and put South Korea on a path to meeting their NDC.
Current policies and action are estimated to lead to an emissions level of 649-691 MtCO2e/year in 2030 (‑3% to 3% relative to 2020 levels, or 106% to 120% above 1990 levels) depending on the eventual impact of the COVID-19 crisis, excluding emissions from land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF).
The Green New Deal announced in 2020 and updated in 2021 commits around 52 billion USD to green remodelling, green energy, and eco-friendly vehicles. By 2025 the New Green Deal targets 42.7 GW of renewable power capacity, 1.13 million electric cars, 200,000 hydrogen cars, and the scrapping of 2.2 million old diesel cars. The final deal did not introduce the carbon tax as promised in the campaigns earlier in the year, however, this is mentioned as a possible policy in South Korea’s 2050 carbon neutrality scenarios document, published in October 2021 (Republic of Korea, 2021c).
Another promise was to stop coal financing, a commitment that was confirmed in April 2021 at the U.S. Leaders’ Summit on Climate, where South Korea announced it will immediately stop financing coal projects abroad (Wang, Liu and Wang, 2021). However, just one month later, exceptions were announced for retrofitting, CCS, and approved projects (SFOC, 2021). Despite this backpedalling, major Korean financial groups like KB, Shinhan, Hana, and Woori, have all announced plans to make their investment portfolios carbon neutral by 2050 (Jee-Hee, 2021).
The two framework policies for the energy supply sector are the 3rd Energy Master Plan adopted in June 2019 for the period up to 2040 (MOTIE, 2019a) and the Ninth 15-year Basic Plan for Electricity Supply and Demand (Ninth Electricity Plan) adopted in December 2020 for the period up to 2034 (MOTIE, 2020).
The 3rd Energy Master Plan aims to increase the renewable electricity share to 20% by 2030, and to 30–35% by 2040 - up from around 6% in 2020 (IEA, 2021b), mainly by increasing the total renewable power capacity up to 129 GW (MOTIE, 2019a). The Ninth Electricity Plan sets a similar target of 20.8% renewables in 2030 and envisages a significantly lower electricity demand growth. The plan includes the retirement of 24 coal plants (but not before their economic lifetime (Lee, 2021)), and considerable roles for LNG and nuclear, which are targeted to account for 23.3% and 25.0%, respectively.
South Korea also announced that it will join the Global Methane Pledge and reduce methane emissions by 30% compared to 2018 (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of South Korea, 2021). If implemented, this means a reduction of about 10 MtCO2e in 2030 below the CAT projections for policies and action.
The full policies and action analysis can be found here.
We rate South Korea’s domestic target for 2030 as “Insufficient” when compared modelled domestic pathways. The “Insufficient” rating indicates that South Korea’s domestic target in 2030 needs substantial improvements to be consistent with the 1.5°C temperature limit. If all countries were to follow South Korea’s approach, warming would reach over 2°C and up to 3°C.
We rate South Korea’s overall NDC target (including the domestic and the international element) as “Highly insufficient” when compared with its fair-share contribution to climate action. The “Highly insufficient” rating indicates that South Korea’s fair share target in 2030 leads to rising, rather than falling, emissions and is not in line with any interpretation of a fair approach to meeting the 1.5°C limit. If all countries were to follow South Korea’s approach, warming could reach over 3°C and up to 4°C.
We evaluate the net zero target as “Average”. The target is enshrined in law through the Framework Act on Carbon Neutrality and Green Growth, which was passed in August 2021. The 2050 carbon neutrality scenarios, released in October 2021, provide two scenarios for reaching the 2050 target, including roadmaps for the different sectors. Although this document does not put any of the two scenarios in law, we interpret it as additional clarification of official character for the net-zero target. The target does not include overseas reductions. However, the target lacks clarity on emissions coverage and detail in the government’s review process.