13 May, 2020

South Korea must double carbon cuts to live up to its international climate obligations: report

South Korea must double its greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets to fulfil its obligation under the Paris climate agreement, our new report shows. Significantly strengthening its 2030 climate target would also help ensure South Korea can achieve its recently announced goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, which would be very difficult under current emission trajectory.

The report by Climate Analytics and South Korean think-tank Solutions for Our Climate is first to outline a Paris-Agreement compatible pathway for South Korea to bring its currently inadequate 2030 emission reduction target (referred to as a Nationally Determined Contribution, or NDC) in line with the 1.5°C limit in the Paris Agreement.

Under the Paris Agreement, South Korea pledged to reduce its domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 32.5%, and to reduce the rest using international offsets or domestic forestry. The report states that “Korea’s domestic emissions target needs to be set at 291 million tons of CO2, and its NDC target, at 66% reductions against BAU emissions to meet the 1.5°C target.”

NDCs – nationally determined contributions – are the pledges set by countries to strengthen their commitment to climate change. Under the Paris Agreement, countries are obligated to submit NDC targets every five years, and this year, they are expected to submit updated ones with strengthened targets for 2030.

The report states the urgent need for Korea to revise its NDC targets this year. However, such revisions seem unlikely in light of recent changes in Korean law. According to a revision in the low-carbon green growth law last December, Korea’s target to cut emissions by 37% against business-as-usual (BAU) emissions was revised to 24.4% until 2030, compared to 2017. As such, it seems likely that the government will submit the same NDC targets to the UN in 2020 as it did in 2015.

Attorney Sejong Youn from Solutions for Our Climate says “the Paris Agreement calls for new NDCs to set more ambitious targets than previous ones,” adding that “if Korea submits the same NDC target as it did in 2015 — 536 million tons of CO2 — it may not be able to avoid criticism that it has violated international law.”

The report points to the need for Korea to share the global burden of these cuts, considering its status as a developed country. To do that, the report states that Korea’s total NDC gas reduction target “must be increased from 37% to over 74%,” and that its greenhouse gas emissions should be cut “by more than half, from 536 million tons of CO2 to 217 million tons of CO2.”


In order for Korea to meet these strengthened emission targets, the report emphasised the need an orderly coal phase-out by 2029 and ensuing a transition to renewables, as outlined in an earlier analysis, released by Climate Analytics last February.

South Korea’s ruling party’s recent victory in the National Assembly elections, and its strengthened commitment to the Green New Deal and pledge to cut emissions to zero by 2050 is an opportunity for stepping up action in this area.

Ursula Fuentes, a senior researcher from Climate Analytics, says “it is very encouraging to see Korea joining the net-zero emissions club but now it is crucial that the government sets a credible plan for getting there, and this means considerably stepping up its emission cutting efforts so that the 2030 targets are in line with the Paris Agreement.” She says such plans may include the expansion of renewables, and the phase-out of coal plants within 10 years, emphasising how this will play “a pivotal role in the energy transition.”

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