[Viewpoint] Korea should join Annex I in Denmark

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[Viewpoint] Korea should join Annex I in Denmark

The Lee Myung-bak administration has been vocal in its commitment to combating climate change. It has launched a five-year plan to invest 50 trillion won ($41.8 billion) in green growth policies, including the development of nuclear, wind and solar power resources and support for research of fuel-cell cars. It also is planning to introduce a carbon tax in 2010 to help finance this ambitious program.

Additionally, the administration is requiring the use of more energy-efficient natural gas buses, increasing the number to 21,936 by 2010. It recently passed a housing regulation requiring contractors building complexes of 20 units or more to make them “green homes,” with energy savings of between 10 and 15 percent per development. Most encouragingly, it has committed to setting a voluntary greenhouse gas emissions reduction target (although that commitment was made over a year ago, and the target has still not been set).

These measures are impressive and can provide inspiration for many other countries around the world. But they are not enough. If Korea wants to demonstrate to the world that it is serious about playing a productive role in the multilateral fight against climate change, there is one way - and only one way - to really drive home the point: by formally joining the list of developed countries in Annex I of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is expected to accept binding greenhouse gas emissions limits at the upcoming Copenhagen Climate Change Conference.

The long-awaited conference, which begins on Dec. 7, is intended to clarify the nature of the international climate change regime that will go into force when the Kyoto Protocol’s term expires in 2012. There are many subplots to the conference. Will the United States finally join the rest of the world in combating climate change? Will the large developing economies such as India and China agree to any binding commitments? Will serious funding be made available to help the world’s poorest countries adapt to climate change?

While failure to reach agreement at Copenhagen would be disastrous, the conference’s success is far from certain.

Korea’s role in the conference is also unclear. During the negotiations for the UNFCCC in 1992, Korea was happy to take a backseat and avoid commitments (as a so-called non-Annex I developing country). This was perfectly appropriate: At the time, Korea was a developing country.

By most measures, it no longer is. Between 1990 and 2008, Korea’s GDP jumped from $254 billion to $929 billion. It joined the OECD in 1996 and is classified as a “high income economy” by the World Bank and as an “advanced economy” by the International Monetary Fund. It is no longer a recipient of foreign aid; On the contrary, it is an important donor country. Korea will be the host of next year’s G-20 meeting and is widely seen as a major player in world affairs. Nor is Korea in the same category as most of the developing world in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Between 1990 and 2007, Korea’s greenhouse gas emissions rose by 113 percent. It is now the world’s ninth-largest emitter, with greater total emissions than France or Brazil. On a per capita basis, Korea’s greenhouse gas emissions are now 23rd highest in the world, which places it ahead of most European nations. Therefore, it is imperative that Korea’s position in the post-Kyoto regime - which is likely to again involve binding emissions limits for developed countries but not for developing countries - reflect its current economic position and carbon footprint.

Joining Annex I and making a binding international commitment to limit greenhouse gas emissions would symbolize Korea’s embrace of a multilateral solution to climate change and possibly inspire other newly developed countries to limit their own emissions. And it would be unlikely to lead to economic hardship or require restrictive new policies.

The Lee administration is already developing a large number of green policies that, if properly implemented, could lead to significant greenhouse gas emissions reductions without the need for further action. Many Korean companies are becoming leaders in green energy technology, and those companies would benefit from the security of knowing that the domestic market for their products will be growing in coming years due to international greenhouse gas reduction obligations in addition to domestic policy initiatives. If it becomes an Annex I country, Korea would be able to participate fully in the climate change regime’s emissions trading and joint-implementation mechanisms, thus decreasing the costs of emissions reductions. Greenhouse gas emissions reductions are also likely to provide other incidental benefits, such as increased energy independence and cleaner air in big cities such as Seoul.

Korea’s economic development in recent decades has been rapid, consistent, and inspiring. This virtually unprecedented growth has given the country a much more prominent profile in world affairs. However, with economic development comes a greater responsibility to assume the responsibilities incumbent on developed nations in addressing the world’s problems. President Lee Myung-bak has repeatedly stated that he wants to take a leadership role in climate change negotiations. Now, it is time to put those words into actions by joining the group of developed nations that is willing to make binding commitments to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

*The writer is a professor of international law and human rights at the GSIS at Hankuk University.

by Andrew Wolman

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