South Korea, one of the world’s largest per capita emitters of carbon emissions, has embarked on a green recovery to kickstart its economy. It’s the same approach taken by a growing chorus of global leaders.

Korea has recognised climate change and that its effects are accelerating, with climate related disasters piling up.

Just this month, a New York clock has been reprogrammed to count down the time remaining before the effects of global warming become irreversible.

A chunk of ice the size of Paris broke off the Arctic’s largest ice shelf, and enormous fires have blazed in California.

Yet in Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison has revealed his government’s plan to lift the country out of the worst recession in more than three decades through a “gas-fired recovery”.

Is there something Australia can learn from the small, manufacturing country?

Sung-Young Kim, a senior lecturer in International Relations at Macquarie University, says yes.

Dr Sung-Young Kim

“The interesting thing about South Korea’s approach to reducing carbon emissions is it isn’t framed in the language of climate policy,” Dr Kim told The Fifth Estate in a recent interview.

South Korean’s view the green recovery as “synergistic growth”, in that economic growth goes hand in hand with environmental protection.

“It’s called green growth. And it’s seen as the only realistic way of reducing carbon emissions,” Dr Kim said.

The Green Deal Explained

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s Green New Deal isn’t the country’s first attempt at a more sustainable future.

The National Green Growth Strategy was launched in 2008 with a focus on the nation becoming a world leading green-tech power and clean energy economy by 2050.

There was a focus on river restoration and a dam scheme critics say quickly proved an environmental disaster, but aimed to improve water quality in the Han, Nakdong, Geum and Yeongsan Rivers, while creating jobs.

South Korea was the first country in East Asia to publicly announce a comprehensive plan in response to the pandemic and the climate crisis.

In April, 392,000 jobs had been lost to the pandemic, according to data released by Statistics Korea.

The economy had been hit hard, but in particular export industries dropped by 24 per cent in May, Dr Kim said, as demand for the nation’s mainstay products – cars, machinery, semiconductors and steel –  fell away.

The Green New Deal centres on investing in new jobs and transitioning to new technologies. The government launched a US$135 billion package in July targeted at creating 1.9 million new jobs by 2025.

“It’s about the government singling to the market it believes green tech is the future and is a job creating mechanism,” Dr Kim said.

“It’s about securing national competitiveness. And it’s about stabilising new industries to lift the country out of the COVID-19 crisis.

“It’s very characteristic Korean. Anyone that’s familiar with the country will know that. Once the Koreans do something, they never do it with half measure. They go all in and that’s it.”

The Green New Deal plans to create 230,000 energy-saving buildings, produce 1.13 million electric cars and 200,000 hydrogen-powered fuel-cell electric vehicles by 2025.

The government plans to install solar panels on 225,000 public buildings, and “smart meters” in five million apartments, to help citizens to cut their electricity bills.

It sets out to transition schools to smarter, greener technologies while investing in electric car recharging stations, and carbon capture technologies to mitigate emissions emitted from industrial processes.

“With the post-coronavirus era pressing upon us, we may no longer delay these historic changes such as climate change responsive actions and paradigm shift into an inclusive society,” the Korea Herald reported the president said.

A huge carbon emitter transitions away from fossil fuels

Out of the country’s big cities, mighty manufacturing sites provide a glimpse into how the country has found its place on the world stage, Dr Kim said.

“If you can describe Australia as being a mining driven and a finance driven economy, that’s where the big end of town really makes the money, for the Koreans, they make their money through manufacturing industries –  cars, semiconductors, green tech, you name it.”

While critics argue the Green New Deal is more grey, as the plan includes using gas as a base load power, Dr Kim asserts gas is being used as a transitional fuel, and is a far cry from the Morrison Government’s laser focus on a gas-led recovery.

“They’ve committed to a 2050 end date for fossil fuels,” he said.

Dr Kim said the country has been making significant inroads since 2017, following the president’s decision to move away from nuclear energy as he came into power.

The president also set a 2030 target for 20 per cent renewable electricity generation, which may appear unambitious when compared to leaders in this space like Germany, now reaching 40 per cent renewable generation.

“But when you compare what South Korea wants to do with what it had before, it is pretty significant. And it’s pretty impressive because of how intensive the manufacturing structure of the country is,” Dr Kim said. 

South Korea’s strategy appeals to economic interests, not the environment

South Korea’s approach to reducing carbon emissions isn’t framed in the “language of climate policy”, Dr Kim said.

“The way the South Koreans have framed reducing carbon emissions is not through appealing to the green vote, but by appealing to the country’s economic interests,” he said.

South Korea’s National Parliament has no official representation from a green party, he said, and climate positive advocacy from non-government organisations is only just beginning to make waves, “climate NGOs have had very little say until very recently.”

“In 2008, the government said, ‘we are going to go green because it’s a money generating mechanism’.”

“The big corporations like Hyundai, like Samsung, like LG, they’re all in on the action.

“They know this is an economic winner.

“Since then we’ve seen the rise of companies like Tesla, companies are jumping on board with electric vehicles, with smart grids, with green hydrogen.”

He says one of the big issues holding Australia back is its tendency to put “a lot of eggs in many different baskets”.

The lack of political vision has led to technologies built in Australia being sold off to multinational companies, leaving investors with little more than their marketing and retail divisions on home turf, Dr Kim said.

“There is another incentive that we can try to nurture, and that is to build a manufacturing base in Australia for these strategic new industries,” he said.

“In that sense, South Korea’s Green New Deal does offer a lot of lessons for Australia.

“What we need is a bit of a risk-taking approach… and a government that’s willing to coordinate a national strategy, which also includes extending or renewing the national Renewable Energy Target, which the Morrison Government has refused to do.”

He says it is important for economies to not only be thinking about support mechanisms for people that have lost their jobs, but also a recovery strategy bolstered by policy certainty.

“The private sector really needs the government to set a plan and outline what it wants the private sector to do, in terms of spending their money, because interest rates are cheap right now,” he said.

“It’s the private sector with their enormous resources that can really drive these greener, technology projects further along down the track.”

Read more about South Korea’s Green New Deal here: http://english.moef.go.kr/pc/selectTbPressCenterDtl.do?boardCd=N0001&seq=4948