The recent 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Glasgow, Scotland ended to mixed reviews. The purpose of the conference was to develop detailed plans to implement the goal of limiting global warming to within 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2050. This goal agreed to in the Paris Agreement in 2015. The scientific community is in broad agreement that warming beyond this level will have grave implications for people and ecosystems.
Scientists and climate activists left disappointed that the largest carbon-emitting nations did not commitment themselves to deeper cuts in emissions. Last-minute pressure from China and India changed the wording regarding coal use from “phasing out” to a weaker “phasing down.” Meanwhile, developing countries, particularly island nations, suffering most from climate change were disappointed by the failure to agree on substantial compensation for damaged caused by historical carbon emissions from developed countries.
The agreement to take concrete measures to meet the ambitious goal of keeping warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius was an accomplishment. This is particularly true given the recent wave of populist nationalism around the world. Weary after almost two years of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, nations have moved closer toward cooperation to face common global threats.
Media coverage of COP26 focused on the debate over carbon and disagreements between developed and developing countries. Street demonstrations by climate activists designed to pressure negotiators received their fair share of attention.
South Korea received little attention. A BBC report, however, stated, “South Korea was named as a country due to give up coal in the 2030s. But the government in Seoul sheepishly pointed to a clause in the pledge saying ‘2030s or as soon as possible thereafter’ to say they’ll stop burning in 2050.”
Perhaps 2030 could be too early, but 2050 is too late for a country of South Korea’s level of development. Developed countries, particularly in Europe, have more ambitious plans for phasing out coal. Germany, for example, plans to phase out all coal-fired power generation by 2038, but is aiming for 2035, only 14 years from now.
President Moon Jae-in attended the opening of COP26, bringing substantial commitments with him. The president pledged to reduce, by 2030, carbon emissions by 40 percent from 2018 levels and to join that Global Methane Pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent. To achieve these goals, the country plans to reduce coal-generated power from 42 percent to 22 percent and to increase renewables to 30 percent by 2030.
These commitments build on previously adopted policies to make South Korea carbon neutral by 2050. Earlier this year, the National Assembly adopted a carbon neutrality law, making South Korea the 14th nation to do so.
South Korea is clearly serious about reducing carbon emissions, but the speed is the problem. The percentage of electricity from coal in the US has dropped sharply in recent years. After holding steady around 50 percent for decades, a drop began in the mid-2000s. In 2014, 39 percent of electricity came from coal, but this had dropped to 19 percent in 2020. The decline over the last 20 years happened despite the pro-fossil fuel presidencies of George W. Bush and Donald Trump.
Much of the drop in coal use in the US comes from a rise in natural gas use. Though natural gas emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal, it still contributes to overall emissions. Over the past few years, renewable energy sources have increased rapidly, overtaking coal for the first time in 2020. As renewables continue to grow, natural gas use should slow and eventually decline along with coal. Natural gas is a transitional energy between coal and renewables.
Known for its speed in reacting to change, South Korea has the potential to reduce its dependence on coal quickly. One way would be to switch to natural gas quickly to give renewables time to grow. The better way, of course, would be to focus directly on renewables with natural gas playing a limited role.
Just four countries — China, the US, India, and Japan — account for 76 percent of the world’s coal-generated electricity. South Korea ranks fifth and, excluding several small nations, it ranks only behind the US and Canada in carbon dioxide emissions per capita.
With a stronger push, South Korea should be able to surpass its goals for 2030 and move up the date for phasing out coal. Aiming for the mid-2030s would help give other carbon-heavy countries the courage to set ambitious goals and implement them quickly.