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Mission possible for South Korea

There is no technical barrier to renewable energy
Oct 18,2017
The Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 was a monumental collective achievement, a generation in the making, and hard won by so many who supported and believed it could happen. Now the real work begins as each country forges ahead with its path towards a fossil-fuel free economy.

Given the remarkable economic and democratic story that is South Korea and its people, if any nation has the skills and mentality to deliver and prosper from a rapid shift to renewable energy, it is yours.

Already seeing and seizing the economic opportunities ahead, President Moon Jae-in announced boldly in June this year that no new coal power plants should be built, and that old coal plants will be phased out, including at least 10 closures in the next five years. He also confirmed that clean energy must become a new driver of economic growth, achieving at least 20 per cent of the country’s power by 2030.

This is more encouraging evidence that the historic coal industry — which includes both coal mining and coal-fired electric plants — is being permanently and irreversibly replaced all around the world. Last year, almost two-thirds of the new energy capacity added globally was made up of renewables, far outstripping coal.

As with every nation, South Korea will face its own set of unique challenges in delivering on this bold agenda and keeping pace with the transition. But look at India, which in just three years has almost completely re-invented its energy plans. It has an ambitious target to bring 275GW of renewable energy online by 2022. This was once deemed unrealistic, but these plans are firmly on target, with the cost of solar having dropped so quickly that it is now cheaper than coal.

India, like South Korea, has been reliant on expensive coal imports but is now on track to cut these to almost zero within the next five years.

There is no technical barrier to renewable energy. The main commonality among countries achieving this rapid change is strong and visionary leadership, and the political will to do so.

This will is remarkably strong in South Korea. I have no doubt that Korea’s businesses, communities and financiers already see the wisdom in this new path. With the right policies in place, your economy will make the transition smoothly, and most likely exceed the current targets. Doing so will come with many important benefits.

With the closure of older coal plants this summer, you’re already breathing easier. Having clean air to breathe should be enough incentive, but switching to renewable energy also means new industries and new jobs. The solar PV industry alone creates more than twice the number of jobs per unit of electricity generation compared with coal or natural gas. The global boom in battery storage, a crucial part of our renewable energy future, is just beginning and as a world leader in this field, South Korea can be at the forefront of this industry, driving exports and productivity at home and abroad.

Overseas, however, the South Korean government is currently the third largest international funder of coal in countries like Vietnam and Indonesia, whose cities are choking in smog. This vital finance can and must be redirected to clean energy. Indeed, that’s where the smart money from the some of the world’s biggest financial players is already headed as they seek to reduce risk from stranded assets and align their investments with the Paris Agreement.

Big financial Institutions like the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, the Bank of England, BlackRock, Deutsche Bank and CalSTRS are all moving away from coal and into renewable energy. While the advantages of forging ahead with this shift are profound,none is more so than the benefit of helping the world to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Even with a world that is one degree Celsius warmer than the beginning of the last century, we are already witnessing intense devastation wrought by extreme weather around the world.

As a global community, we agreed in Paris to keep temperatures well below two degrees, while striving for a limit of 1.5 degrees. Any higher than these guardrails would be unthinkable.

For the best chance of staying well below two degrees, our mission and moral imperative is to ensure that global CO2 emissions be in rapid decline by 2020. Is this a monumental challenge? Yes. But it is one that is necessary, desirable and absolutely achievable with the right intentions and groundbreaking collaboration.

South Korea is already on the way, but the hard work must start now to accelerate and ratchet up our emission reduction efforts in line with the 2020 timeframe so we can keep the promise of Paris for future generations.

As I meet with politicians, businesspeople and experts in your country this week, it gives me great optimism to see the path being charted at both the national and local levels in cities and regions across the country, including Seoul, Chungnam, Changwon, Daegu Metropolitan City and Suwon, all dedicated to reducing local greenhouse gas emissions, enhancing resilience to climate change, and transitioning to a low-carbon economy.

I look forward to seeing South Korea continue on this path, and to playing a central role in the huge opportunity that is our clean energy transformation. In doing so, you will help create a healthy, secure and economically vibrant society at home.


* The author is former executive director of the UNFCCC. She is vice chair of the Global Covenant of Mayors and Convener of Mission2020, a collaborative initiative to accelerate action towards the 2020 climate turning point.

Christiana Figueres