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A new climate era

Shay Meinecke
May 18, 2017

President Moon has briefly shut down dirty coal plants in South Korea, ushering in a new era for climate change. DW examines Moon's climate policy and how he intends to clean one of the world's most polluted countries.

Moon Jae-in Präsidentschaftskandidat Südkorea
Image: Reuters

Following through on a campaign promise to fight air pollution in South Korea, liberal President Moon Jae-in on only his fifth day in office ordered a temporary halt on ten coal-fired power plants for one month starting in June.

Korea's presidential office, formally known as the Blue House, said that older coal plants would again be closed from March to June next year. In addition, Moon intends to close every coal power plant older than 30 years within his five-year presidential term.

"We can no longer delay the pursuit of safe and clean energies. I will reduce coal-fired power plants and nuclear reactors, and increase power generation from renewable energy sources and natural gas," Moon said in a statement.

Though Moon's policy directive has been hailed by climate activists as a step in the right direction, challenges still remain for Asia's fourth largest economy.

Pollution concerns

Nearly half of Korea's electricity demands come from coal power plants, which produce fine dust particles described by the World Health Organization (WHO) as carcinogenic. The micro-particles, which are known as PM 2.5, can penetrate deep into lungs and trigger a variety of illnesses. An Air Quality Index exceeding WHO's daily safety standards of 10 micrograms per cubic meter is considered dangerous.

According to government data, over 30,000 tons of dust, sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide are emitted from just ten old coal-fired power plants, which account for around 20 percent of pollution in the country. The International Energy Agency states that coal power plants are the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) states that South Korea has dramatically increased greenhouse gas emissions from coal power plants. By 2060, OECD says nearly nine million people worldwide could die from the particles, with South Korea ranked near the top of the list among developed nations.

Pollution has also at times been blamed on neighboring China. Last year's Environmental Performance Index ranked South Korea 173rd out of 180 countries in terms of air quality, making it one of the poorest performers among Asian countries.

Norwegen Forschungsstation in Svalbard
Moon intends to close every coal power plant older than 30 years within his five-year presidential termImage: Reuters/A. Filipova

To combat against this disturbing pollution trend, Moon has said he would invest around 60 billion Korean won (50 million euros) in air circulators and dust-measuring appliances, which will be installed "at some 11,000 elementary to high schools across the nation to constantly monitor air quality."

The devices are meant to alleviate health problems in Korea, as around 100 "fine dust alerts" have been issued this year. Authorities in capital Seoul, meanwhile, have also distributed government-approved dust masks for school-aged children.

"To reduce fine dust emissions by 30 percent," Moon said he would "decrease the number of coal-fired power plants in the country."

While Korea's dependency on dirty coal power plants seems to be shifting — and nuclear power has fallen from nearly 40 percent in recent years to currently around 30 percent, due to safety reasons and public distrust — the East Asian country presently lacks alternative energy production options.

Moon's climate plans

To alleviate these concerns, Moon has sought to increase renewable production in the near future, Professor Kyung Nam Kim of Korea University's Green School (Graduate School of Energy and Environment) told DW.

"Under President Moon, Korea is pushing for renewable energy production to increase from around five percent to about 20 percent by 2030," Kim said.

The increase in energy production could come from solar, wind, biomass and waste renewable sources, he added.

Südkorea Greenpeace Protest gegen Atomkraftwerk Kori
South Korea's dependence on nuclear power has fallen from nearly 40 percent to currently around 30 percentImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Yonhap

But the dramatic increase in clean energy production, Kim admitted, could be difficult, as the populous and mountainous Asian country lacks an abundance of natural resources and relies heavily on imports. South Korea ranks among the top importers of coal, oil and gas in the world.

"Korea's dependency on imports could change," Kim said, adding that Moon's government would look to offer major incentives to companies that offered clean energy solutions. "Renewable industries are soon expecting government support to assist with their energy efficiency endeavors."

Just last year, South Korea's Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy announced it would invest over 40 trillion Korean won (35 billion euros) in developing renewable energy industries. Under the plan, new renewable power stations would be constructed by 2020 to produce 13 million kilowatts of electricity annually, which is equivalent to around 25 coal plants.

Korea's deputy trade minister for energy and resource also announced that "the government would lift unnecessary regulations and increase government support to foster a renewable energy sector."

Expert Kim believes under Moon's direction South Korea could usher in a new era by relying more on a renewed clean energy industry that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and offset its dependency on imports.