In October 2020, South Korea pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050. An election strategy that turned into a full-fledged commitment in the form of the exemplary Green New Deal has the UN’s eyes on the measures being implemented to fulfil the policy. How can South Korea achieve carbon neutrality?

This ambitious project of achieving net-zero emissions within the next three decades is an unprecedented aim for the country. With a substantial carbon footprint, South Korea is the fourth largest importer of coal, third biggest investor in overseas coal projects and the tenth largest consumer of electricity – two thirds of which is generated from fossil fuels. 

Renewables make up only 4% of the country’s electricity mix, the lowest share of any developed country member of the International Energy Agency. The 9th Basic Plan (a strategy that favours better sources for electricity in South Korea at the expense of low-cost coal and nuclear power) and the latest energy policy – The New Green Deal of South Korea (the third Energy Master Plan up to 2040) adopted in June 2019, together with the 2017 power sector plan for the period up to 2030, aims to increase the renewable electricity share to 20% by 2030 and 30% to 35% by 2040–up from 3% in 2017.  Between 2019 and 2030 the share of dispatchable generation is expected to fall from 94% to 79%. 

Renewable sources in the country include hydro, oceanic, biogas, landfill gas and fuel cell energy sources, in addition to solar PV and wind.  While the 9th Plan clearly favours gas and renewables at the expense of low-cost coal and nuclear, South Korea must balance its commitment to a green future with making power prices affordable to the public.  Electricity, transport, manufacturing and construction, industries, aviation and shipping along with other sources contribute to the total of carbon emissions in the country, which is estimated to be 651.9 million metric tonnes. 

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A graph showing greenhouse gas emissions by sector in South Korea in 2016 (Source: Our World in Data). 

Setting targets is just the first step; the pledge must be accompanied by long-term plans that lay out, step by step, how each sector of South Korea can contribute to the 2050 carbon neutrality goal. Stabilising the use of renewable energy together with efforts to decrease the growth of carbon emissions and taking advantage of Korea’s technological capabilities to update systems will yield benefits. 

Stringent climate policies to reduce emissions in order to reach its target and focusing on substitutes to replace coal-fired plants should be evaluated. South Korea as a country will also have to examine current conditions to ensure future stability and opportunities for increase in renewable energy along with protection of Energy Security altogether for undisturbed availability and recovery protocols in case of interruptions.

Given Korea’s history of a diversified and secure electric system, addressing the main considerations for ensuring electricity security through the following components: future flexibility requirements, operational security, long-term planning, market improvements, and cyber and climate resilience is essential. Additionally, coal and nuclear have combined to provide nearly two-thirds of South Korea’s power supply in the last decade. In this case, the country should stop/reduce supporting newer coal power constructions nationwide as well as internationally and stay true to its decision to build the world’s largest offshore wind farm by 2030 to become a global leader in offshore wind by making concrete plans.

However, the difficulty of achieving this target cannot be understated. In order to avoid interruption after or while the goal is being completed, the authorities should take note that the supply is ample for the public and their demands are being fulfilled. Additionally, the strategy will also need further updates as time goes because of constant developments in technology and lifestyle of citizens.

South Korea should religiously consider a few questions for constructive results: