When the dust settled on South Korea’s 2022 election, Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative People Power Party emerged ahead by just 0.73 per cent of the national vote – the tightest result in the country’s democratic history.
President Yoon’s victory signalled the defeat of the Democratic Party of Korea who, under the leadership of Moon Jae-in, announced the Korean New Deal as the government’s response to the COVID-19 economic recovery.
This wide-ranging stimulus package aims to boost South Korea’s competitiveness in the digital and green technology spheres through three key pillars: the Digital New Deal, the Green New Deal and the creation of stronger employment and social safety nets.
Coupled with the Moon government’s commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, the Green New Deal formed the backbone of South Korea’s approach to the clean energy transition.
Since taking office, President Yoon has affirmed his administration’s support for Korea’s energy transition alongside key industries like hydrogen and critical minerals, despite initial concerns over his campaign comments that “100 per cent renewable energy doesn’t make any sense”.
Where his administration substantially differs is on nuclear energy, a longstanding point of controversy in Korean politics.
While the Moon administration was opposed to the development of a nuclear industry in Korea, Yoon has argued strongly in favour of increasing the share of energy derived from nuclear sources in order to meet the country’s net zero goal.
This notable point of difference conceals a large degree of continuity, however, in that President Moon’s Green New Deal and Yoon’s pro-nuclear emission reduction plan are simply competing approaches to a single problem faced by South Korea – the need to decarbonise the economy while also securing new paths for economic growth.
Noticeable in the Moon administration’s announcement of the Green New Deal is the fact that Korea’s green economic policy was positioned as decidedly nationalist rather than something dictated by political beliefs or party politics.
In the words of an official in the Moon administration, the Green New Deal was designed to be “not a government project. It is all about national unity” – a clear attempt at casting the green economic agenda as apolitical.
This is an admirable effort given the widespread political polarisation that often hampers countries’ discussions of climate change, most notably in the United States where domestic politics have obstructed global efforts to combat it.
Korea is not immune to the phenomenon of climate change opinion division. We can see this in a 2020 analysis of survey data by the Asan Institute which showed that political alignment was a statistically significant indicator of views on climate change.
Supporters of conservative parties are more likely to express greater scepticism about the science of climate change and less likely to tolerate higher electricity bills during a transition to cleaner energy sources.
Despite this, the calibre of debate on climate goals among political figures in Korea should be the envy of countries like Australia where climate change has been highly politicised by some media and business interests.
The divergent Korean views are on how climate targets should be achieved rather than debate over what targets are necessary,
Even without the presence of significant internal divisions over climate change, research since Korea’s green economic shift has cast doubt over the government’s ability to deliver on its lofty promise of economic growth without increasing carbon emissions.
A 2016 study showed that Korea’s pivot to green growth objectives since 2008 has not led to any relative or absolute decreases in carbon emissions. This research also concluded that without additional policies like carbon pricing that are directly targeted at reducing emissions, Korea’s CO₂ emissions are likely to increase up to 2026 and beyond.
Korea’s issue with policy tools like carbon pricing is that they bring the tension between economic growth and environmental protection directly into the spotlight by framing their relationship as one where compromise is necessary.
Korea’s green economic strategy has instead aimed to circumvent this debate by focusing on framing the sustainable economic transition as a ‘win-win’ tool to deliver on economic, environmental, and energy-related goals simultaneously with no visible sacrifice.
But if Korea is to deliver a truly successful green economic paradigm with the ability to serve as a model for the world, the clear link between economic growth and carbon emissions will eventually need to be addressed.
Korea finds itself in an enviable position compared to many other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Its population largely agrees that climate change is a pressing issue and the need to act in effective and targeted ways is broadly accepted.
Like in many rich countries, the need to de-politicise the climate change debate remains a pressing issue. However, in Korea, disinformation about climate change and its effects has not stalled political action as much as elsewhere.
Even amid a change of government, something that in other countries has precipitated drastic changes in environmental policy, it appears likely that Korea will stay on track to meet its target of net zero emissions by 2050.
Debates over nuclear energy and the final 2050 energy mix should be welcomed, as they aim to refine the country’s path towards economic sustainability, not abandon it completely.
Korea’s pioneering of green growth sets it apart from the world in leading the mission to reconcile the ever-conflicting goals of economic growth and environmental sustainability.
The ‘nationalising’ of the narrative of climate change action by the government – framing it as an opportunity for the nation – should be studied closely by those aiming to effect climate policy change in countries marred by political polarisation.
Korea’s approach to decarbonisation may not be perfect and environmental issues must still be addressed, but labelling the country’s green economic agenda as simply ‘greenwashing’ existing economic priorities would be to misrepresent one of the world’s best examples of a country that is making substantial progress in the mission of uniting the ever-conflicted goals of economic growth and environmental sustainability.
A longer version of this article has been published by Melbourne Asia Review.
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