Table of Contents

South Korea is not typically thought of as the front line of the fight against climate change, but the peninsula has seen its fair share of disconcerting signs of ecological distress. A special type of Korean fir tree from Jeju Island that is prized for Christmas trees has begun to disappear as warming temperatures have melted the snowfall that these trees need to thrive. On the island’s coastline, indigenous female divers called haenyeo, whose culture has been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, are concerned about their job security due to a rapidly shifting marine ecosystem. Meanwhile, unusual forest fires in North Gyeongsang Province in 2020 and 2021 devastated an area the size of more than 300 soccer fields. In August 2022, the “heaviest rainfall in eighty years” even left South Korean subway stations flooded. Until recently, most South Koreans did not perceive the climate crisis as an everyday concern. But today, it is a very different story.

Juhern Kim
Juhern Kim is a sustainability expert who is dedicated to achieving the goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. He is the country director of the Global Green Growth Institute in the Philippines and has also worked in Colombia, Costa Rica, Vietnam, Cambodia, Switzerland, and South Korea.

While South Korea’s economic success story is well-known, the country’s ability to develop its economy in a sustainable way is becoming increasingly essential. In recent years, South Korea has sought to shed its reputation as a climate laggard and clean up its heavy-polluting economic model through concerted actions by government officials and private companies. While South Koreans have already made laudable progress, there is still more that can be done. The extent to which South Korea can optimize its green transition in the 2020s and well into the 2030s and 2050s will greatly shape its long-term economic and environmental prospects.

Cleaning Up a Dirty Economic Model

An often-overlooked aspect of South Korea’s spectacular economic rise in the latter half of the twentieth century is how deeply indebted this growth was to highly polluting heavy industry. As then South Korean president Park Chung-hee once put it, “If you can see factories [spewing] out gas, it is a sign of . . . success.” The country’s manufacturing-driven growth model traditionally has been anchored by carbon-intensive industrial titans like the steel manufacturing giant POSCO, oil refining firms like SK Energy and GS Caltex, and petrochemical producers. The era’s dominant business model was designed to deliver private profits without accounting for negative externalities including environmental degradation. For example, according to a 2002 South Korean government report, imports accounted for 97 percent of the country’s energy needs. In 2008, South Korea ranked tenth worldwide in energy consumption, fifth in crude oil imports, third in coal imports, and second in imports of liquefied natural gas. That same year, the price of a barrel of oil surged to nearly $150, and the country had to fork over more than $140 billion on energy imports.

Unsurprisingly, South Korea ranked eleventh in greenhouse gas emissions among the signatories of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2018 and seventh worldwide in annual carbon dioxide emissions in 2019. Consequently, more than 17,000 South Koreans died in 2017 due to bad air quality; the following year, the government even had to restrict the operations of coal-fired plants when the air quality grew too poor. South Korea, like most other industrialized nations, has long failed to acknowledge these negative spillover effects that appear to be pushing the planet closer to its ecological limits.

But South Korea has devoted itself to a national economic transformation of its energy use over the past decade and a half. In 2008, then president Lee Myung-bak, who formerly served as chief executive officer of the Hyundai Engineering and Construction Company, proclaimed a fundamental shift in the country’s development model focused on low-carbon industries as a way to create new growth. In 2009, the Lee administration unveiled an $85 billion plan to invest in clean energy, while committing the country to spending 2 percent of GDP on the green transition until 2013. This shift was monumental given that the South Korean economy had traditionally been driven mostly by fossil fuel–based industries.

The Lee administration also established the Framework Act on Low Carbon Green Growth, a law on targets for reducing emissions and other complementary policies such as prioritizing R&D for green technologies. It also founded the Global Green Growth Institute and convinced the UN to locate the Green Climate Fund office, mandated with supporting green transitions in developing nations, in the business hub of Songdo in Incheon, southwest of Seoul.

Despite this historic developmental paradigm shift, however, South Korea’s greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise, reaching a peak of 727.6 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2018. In 2016, after backsliding policies under then president Park Geun-hye, South Korea was named one of the world’s four “biggest climate villains” based on data from the Climate Action Tracker. The main reasons behind the national dishonor were the country’s steep levels of per capita emissions, financial backing for overseas coal-fired power plants, and abandonment of targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Trends in Green Industrial Technologies

Overall, some investments in green technology that South Korea made early on have begun to bear fruit. Several South Korean companies are leading players in various green technology markets including the growing rechargeable battery sector. In September 2021, South Korean manufacturers had a 33.8 percent share of the global market in rechargeable batteries, led by firms like LG Energy Solution (23.8 percent), SK Innovation (now referred to as SK On) (5.4 percent), and Samsung SDI (4.6 percent), making the country one of the most promising hubs in this global supply chain.

The sector’s growth potential is enormous, given that rechargeable batteries are an essential part of most green industries. In the automotive sector alone, for instance, the global market for electric vehicle (EV) batteries is projected to climb from around $19.8 billion in 2020 to $38.3 billion in 2025. In the South Korean market alone, the share of EVs in the transportation sector is expected to increase from 3.4 percent in 2020 to between 85 and 97 percent by 2050, according to the government’s recent 2050 Carbon Neutrality Scenario. Top South Korean auto manufacturers—including the Hyundai Motor Company and Kia Corporation (both part of the Hyundai Motor Group)—ranked second in EV sales globally, if the China market is excluded, according to an August 2022 Financial Times article. Although the industry has been facing a trade issue in relation to the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, its long-term prospects are still competitive.

South Korean companies have been leaving their mark in the renewables sector too. The company Hanwha Q CELLS has held the top spot for selling solar photovoltaic modules for ten quarters in a row, obtaining a 24.8 market share in the U.S. residential market in fiscal year 2020. Meanwhile, South Korean companies like the CS Wind Corporation and Dongkuk S&C are key players in the global market for wind turbine towers, a market that is projected to grow to $30 billion by 2026. South Korea is also one of the early movers in the development of hydrogen projects, and a group of five leading South Korean firms has unveiled joint plans to invest more than $38 billion in such ventures by 2030. Some South Korean companies are already active in the development of the green hydrogen industry globally, as seen from recent deals in the United Arab Emirates and Australia.

During his term, former South Korean president Moon Jae-in strengthened South Korea’s sustainable industries through policies like the Green New Deal, which is slated to commit around $61 billion (73.4 trillion won) to green economic sectors. The policy includes benchmarks such as a goal of more than tripling power generation via solar panels and wind turbines to 42.7 gigawatts between 2019 and 2025, installing solar panels on 225,000 public buildings, and adding more than 1 million EVs and 200,000 hydrogen-powered vehicles by 2025. Digital technologies such as smart meters will be installed in 5 million additional apartments to improve energy efficiency. This trend of promoting solar and wind power is expected to (and has to) be strengthened.

Certain aspects of South Korea’s energy mix remain points of contention. One consideration is the role of nuclear energy, especially after the Moon administration’s controversial incremental plan to reduce the country’s number of active nuclear reactors from twenty-four to fourteen by 2038. Nuclear power has been acknowledged as a low-carbon energy source (as confirmed by the European Union’s taxonomy on energy sources), subject to strict safety and environmental conditions including on waste disposal. Several energy experts have argued that an increase in the share of nuclear power is absolutely necessary to achieve carbon neutrality goals by 2050, given the required time for other new technologies to become commercially feasible.

For example, although some expect the price of green hydrogen to fall by 2040, the argument is that it would be wise to use readily available technologies in the meantime given the timebound nature of the climate crisis. Countries like France, the UK, and the United States are promoting small modular reactors (SMRs) with less than 300 megawatts of power-generating capacity as part of their net zero pledges, in light of this technology’s potential for enhanced safety and security compared to that of earlier designs. In that regard, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who was inaugurated in May 2022, and his new administration plan to increase the target for nuclear power’s share to 30 percent of the country’s energy mix by 2030, compared to its current target for nationally determined contributions (NDC) of 23.9 percent by 2030, while adding nuclear energy in a revised draft of the Korean Green Taxonomy. This trend is expected to open new opportunities for South Korean firms such as Doosan Enerbility, Hyundai Engineering and Construction, Daewoo Engineering and Construction, and Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power, among others. In August 2022, the South Korean conglomerate SK Group invested $250 million in a firm, called TerraPower and founded by Bill Gates, that is developing SMRs.

Figure 1 displays South Korea’s stated commitments under the Paris Agreement, and table 1 presents the projected emissions reduction goals for several postindustrial economies.1 Notably, South Korea’s NDC target requires a steep annual average rate of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from the baseline year to 2030 compared to those of other major economies.

Table 1. Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Goals for Major Postindustrial Economies
  Emissions per year (millions of tons of carbon dioxide equivalent)
Gray boxes signify the baseline years
% of reductions (compared to the baseline year) annual average rate of reductions (from the baseline year to 2030)
  1990 2005 2013 2018 2030 NDC    
EU (27 countries) 4,846.1 (baseline) 4,540.58 3,912.50 3,770.10 2,180.80 55% 2.00%
UK 806.3 (baseline) 692.3 565.6 463.5 255.3 68% 2.80%
United States 6,453.50 7,434.8 (baseline) 6,784.50 6,687.50 3,622.00 51% 2.80%
Canada 603.2 729.7 (baseline) 720.9 729.3 419.6 42% 2.20%
Japan 1,275 1,382 1,409 (baseline) 1,248 760.2 46% 3.60%
South Korea 292.1 561.5 697.3 727.0 (baseline) 436.6 40% 4.20%

Becoming a True Climate Leader

The South Korean government has kept this momentum going to some degree with a host of other moves. In 2020, the country declared that it would seek to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, and in 2021 the South Korean government drastically raised the ambitions of its commitments under the Paris Agreement. In April 2021, South Korea promised to “end all new financing” for overseas coal-fired power plants, according to Reuters. Seoul also released a plan to make its official development assistance (ODA) more ecofriendly, raising its share for green programs above the average of the members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee and tripling “the amount of ODA loans for green projects by 2025.” This is a notable step, given that only 9 percent of the country’s current assistance was dedicated to green activities in 2018, a low figure compared to those of other actors like France (67 percent), Japan (48 percent), and the EU institutions (34 percent). South Korea hosted the Partnering for Green Growth Summit in May 2021. In August 2021, the National Assembly codified the country’s target to reach net zero emissions by 2050, just a few months after the Presidential Committee on Carbon Neutrality was established—two significant milestones.

Nonetheless, other major issues remain unresolved. Although South Korea announced its official moratorium on financing for overseas coal-burning plants, the country’s public financing still gravitates toward oil and gas (with $127 billion spent on the sector in the past ten years). South Korea ranks fourth among Group of 20 (G20) members in financial backing for fossil fuel ventures. The country should use its coffers and expertise in infrastructure development to encourage emerging economies to formulate green investment projects in renewable energy, electric transport, waste management, climate-savvy agriculture, and other sectors to help curb global greenhouse-gas emissions.

South Korea has several conglomerates that can aid in the green transition at home and abroad, such as LG Energy Solution, SK On, Samsung SDI, Hanwha Q CELLS, and others. At the same time, South Korean start-ups are also on the upswing amid the push toward net zero. This includes companies like Nearthlab (a drone inspection firm for onshore and offshore wind turbines), ENlighten (an information and communications technology platform in the renewables sector), INGINE (an onshore-type wave energy company), RE:Harvest (a food-upcycling firm developing a flour alternative from beer byproducts), and the Zikooin Company (a plant-based meat production firm). South Korea’s advanced technologies across vital supply chains can be applied in several emerging economies, as a form of climate technology transfer, accelerating their own transitions toward greener economies. This is a strategic opportunity for South Korea to lead the global transition to net zero.

Carbon neutrality is no longer a choice. South Korea has the technological potential and experience to foster a green, twenty-first-century encore to the Miracle on the Han River, both domestically and globally. Forward-looking government policies, coordination with global partners (especially emerging economies), and creative innovation led by the private sector, including start-ups, must all come together to meet this goal. That is the only way to ensure that South Korea is a leader in sustainable development and effectively mitigates the negative consequences of climate change.

Correction: This article misstated the date of South Korea's heavy rainfall. It was August 2022, not August 2020Notes

1 The data for table 1 come from the following UN and national sources. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, “Nationally Determined Contributions Registry,” 2021, https://unfccc.int/NDCREG; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” 2020, https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=AIR_GHG; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Climate Change Indicators: U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” August 1, 2022, https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/climate-change-indicators-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions; UK Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, “Final UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions National Statistics: 1990 to 2020,” 2020, https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/final-uk-greenhouse-gas-emissions-national-statistics-1990-to-2020; Government of Canada, “Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” 2020, https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/environmental-indicators/greenhouse-gas-emissions.html; Japanese National Institute for Environmental Studies, “The GHG Emissions Data of Japan,” 2020, https://www.nies.go.jp/gio/en/archive/ghgdata/index.html; South Korean Greenhouse Gas Information Center, “Announcement of National Greenhouse Gas Inventory for 2021 (1990–2019), 2019, http://www.gir.go.kr/home/board/read.do?pagerOffset=0&maxPageItems=10&maxIndexPages=10&searchKey=&searchValue=&menuId=36&boardId=54&boardMasterId=2&boardCategoryId=; and South Korean Presidential Committee of Carbon Neutrality, “2050 Carbon Neutral Scenario (Summary, Full Version Second Plentary Meeting Deliberation and Resolution,” October 18, 2021, https://www.2050cnc.go.kr/base/board/read?boardManagementNo=4&boardNo=101&searchCategory=&page=1&searchType=&searchWord=&menuLevel=2&menuNo=15.