South Korea’s Reforms Should not be Called a Green New Deal


South Korea has put forth a “Green New Deal” that aims to ease the economic impact of Covid-19 while addressing climate change. However, its ambiguous targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and failure to propose a just transition to clean energy make the program unworthy of its name. It is merely a rather disappointing green stimulus package.

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"We demand a Green New Deal, not a Grey New Deal" – Youth Climate Emergency Action
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"We demand a Green New Deal, not a Grey New Deal" – Youth Climate Emergency Action

In South Korea, 2020 will be remembered for Covid-19 and the climate crisis. It rained all summer, for 54 days straight. Moreover, for the first time since the Korea Meteorological Administration began keeping track in 1973, the average temperature in July was lower than that in June. Heat waves, floods, forest fires, and droughts continue around the world, as human-generated greenhouse gases have raised the global average temperature by 1°C over the past 150 years.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018 stated that global warming should be limited to 1.5°C. To achieve this, global net human-caused CO2 emissions need to be reduced about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching 'net zero' around 2050. 

Korea’s strategy to accomplish this huge task is the Green New Deal. During parliamentary elections in mid-April, the Justice Party and the Green Party committed to this policy as an antidote to the climate crisis and problems of inequality, while the ruling Democratic Party also pledged to support the Green New Deal.

The Green New Deal is a policy of social transformation

The Korean government announced its version of the Green New Deal as a response to the climate crisis and a means of reviving the economy in the wake of Covid-19. Its proposal consists of a Green New Deal and a Digital New Deal, with an emphasis on strengthening the employment safety net. On July 14, the government announced it would invest 73.4 trillion won (USD 61.8 billion) by 2025 to create 659,000 new jobs, focusing on green re-modelling, expanding renewable energy, and increasing the supply of electric and hydrogen vehicles. However, critics immediately attacked the plan, calling it names like “Gray New Deal” and “Slow New Deal”. This is because the plan did not meet people’s expectations for a Green New Deal.

Existing government policy is on track to significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions. Seven additional coal-fired power plants, including Samcheok, Gangneung and Goseong, are currently under construction. Korea is also investing in overseas coal power generation in Indonesia and elsewhere. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport will invest some 780 billion won (USD 657 million) to build a new airport in Saemangeum, on Korea’s southwest coast. Several additional airport construction projects are being planned in local areas.

The Ministry of Environment has said that the Green New Deal would cut 12.29 million tons of greenhouse gases, but that is far from enough. National greenhouse gas emissions stood at 711 million tons in 2017. It’s like scooping water from an overflowing sink, while leaving the faucet on. Unlike the European Union, which set a net zero goal for 2050, Korea's Green New Deal has an ambiguous roadmap for reducing emissions and achieving the net zero target. Former President Lee Myung-bak’s 'low-carbon green growth' plan in 2008 was criticized as ‘green washing,’ as it included the expansion of nuclear power plants and the large-scale Four Major Rivers construction project. The 2020 Korean Green New Deal also faces criticism for including the construction of coal power plants without clarifying a plan to phase out coal. Therefore, it would have made more sense to announce a green stimulus package instead of calling it the “New Deal”. The term New Deal raised high expectations, but it disappointed the agriculture, biodiversity, waste and pollution management sectors by excluding them.

Green New Deal without a ‘just transition’

The great transition to a decarbonised society produces obvious winners and losers. Internal combustion engine vehicles and coal power plants must be quickly abandoned. In the EU’s Green New Deal, out of 1 trillion euros (USD 1.18 trillion) to be invested over 10 years, 100 billion euros (USD 118 billion) is allocated to assist coal regions in transitioning to cleaner energy sources. It emphasizes engagement so that no one is left out or left behind in the process of transition. The Korean government is also advocating a “fair transition”, but it only provides renewable energy aid to coal-fired areas. Documents released by the Korean government describe the U.S. New Deal in the 1930s as based on social consensus and focused on relief, recovery and reform. The report states: “In addition to the economic recovery, it contributed to the transformation of philosophy, ideology, and systems, including the end of laissez-faire, the correction of contradictions in monopolistic capitalism, and the formation of the foundation of the U.S. welfare system.” After making this assessment, the Korean version of the New Deal aims for a speedier path to growth recovery than other countries. The country is obsessed with “extreme growthism”.

Let’s restructure the Green New Deal like a New Deal

We must convert the government’s reform plan into a real Green New Deal that can respond to the climate crisis and overhaul Korea's overall economic, social, educational and cultural policies. First, we need to create a social consensus on the Green New Deal. Under the 2015 Paris climate agreement, a low-emission development strategy (LEDS) that includes a nationally determined contribution (NDC) to cope with climate change by 2030, and goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, should be submitted to the United Nations by December 2020. Whether the government sets the target date for a net zero society at 2050 will depend on the remaining four months of discussion.

We must convert the government’s reform plan into a real Green New Deal that can respond to the climate crisis and overhaul Korea's overall economic, social, educational and cultural policies.

As the climate crisis intensifies, the international community's regulations on reducing greenhouse gas emissions will inevitably tighten. Only when the nation's energy consumption is transformed can its stranded assets, such as coal power plants, be reduced. (A stranded asset means an asset whose value falls significantly due to rapid changes in the market or social environment.) Currently, Korea's greenhouse gas reduction target is a 24.4% reduction from 2017 by 2030. We must discuss raising this goal. The transition to a decarbonised society is possible only when the public is well informed about the global climate crisis. In the remainder of its term, the government should focus on education and public relations so that the entire nation is aware of the Paris Agreement and the net zero emissions goal. Public officials who make policy should be educated first.

The government should take the initiative in proposing that the goal of net zero emissions in 2050 be included in the Green New Deal Act, which is being prepared by the National Assembly. It is necessary that all government ministries include a carbon budget and carbon impact assessment in the projects they propose and implement. Independent committees should be assigned to inspect and evaluate emissions and force implementation of reduction targets. The government needs a comprehensive plan to achieve zero carbon emissions. For example, it cannot simply decree the number of hydrogen and electric vehicles to be supplied, but should create policies and action plans for the transportation sector as a whole. Policies and plans for expanding renewable energy, the prohibition of internal combustion engines, and other changes need to be legally reviewed. Funding to ensure a just transition to new systems should also be discussed.

The transition to a decarbonised society is possible only when the public is well informed about the global climate crisis.

On 1 September 2020 the Justice Party, the Green Party and the Future Party held an online press conference and announced their plans to work together to come up with genuine Green New Deal policies, including setting emissions goals and ensuring a just transition.

Seong Mi-seon, co-chair of the Green Party, said: "Even 226 local governments have declared a climate emergency. The National Assembly should quickly pass the Climate Emergency Resolution and enact a bill containing the goal of net zero emissions in 2050 to protect citizens’ lives and livelihoods as a priority response to the climate crisis." It is time for all of us to pool our wisdom and capabilities so that the Green New Deal can bring consolation and hope in this difficult and exhausting era, to serve as Noah's Ark in the rising flood of climate crisis.

(The Japanese version of this article can be found here.)