The world has changed

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The world has changed

South Korea in 2008 announced its national agenda for “low-carbon green growth” and established the Basic Law that required the country to work toward that goal. The next year, the government followed up with an action plan, declaring that by 2020 it would have 30 percent less carbon emissions from the current estimate if nothing changed. To attain the goal, the government set guidelines on greenhouse gas and energy consumption in 2012, with plans to enforce emissions restrictions and trading from next year. Companies would get permits for specific volumes of emissions and would then be allowed to sell and buy those licenses among themselves as needed to prevent total emissions from exceeding a certain level. But the global view and approach toward carbon reductions is changing. The industrial sector is raising concerns and complaints about the government’s earlier plan, saying it does not take into account the recent alterations.

First of all, the government’s estimation on emissions has proven to differ greatly with actual emission levels. In 2010, the country emitted 669 million tons of carbon dioxide, exceeding the previous estimate of 644 million tons by about 4 percent. Last year’s emission level of 899 million tons of carbon gas was more than 10 percent greater than the 811 tons estimated for 2020.

Circumstances today are not the same as when the government pledged a 30 percent cutback in emissions. But the government wants to stick to the original plan in order not to lose face. Because of delays in the commercialization of carbon capture and storage technology, essential for mitigating emissions, the original 2020 goal appears far-fetched now. Considering the country’s carbon emissions accounted for about 1.4 percent of the global 4.9 billion tons of emissions in 2010, Korea is in effect volunteering to achieve between 3 percent and 8 percent of the total global reduction target of 3 billion to 7 billion tons by 2020. Local industries will lose competitiveness for the extra cost burden if they are forced to follow the current system.

Much also has changed on the international front. The Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has been reduced to a symbolic treaty, with many developed countries leaving the accord amid strong disagreements between developed and developing countries over the binding force and commitment to reduce emissions. The 19th and last UN Climate Change Convention conference failed to reach a new consensus on targets for emission cuts. The United States, China and India never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, and other leaders - Japan, Russia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - withdrew from the treaty from 2011 in order to protect their industries. Germany and Britain are the only countries among the world’s 10 largest emitters that remain faithful to their commitments to reduce emissions. Since its catastrophic meltdown in the earthquake-hit nuclear reactor complex, Japan has shifted its energy policy, raising its carbon emission target to 3.1 percent in 2020 from an earlier plan to reduce by 25 percent against the levels in the 1990s.

The carbon trading market, an inventive mechanism developed countries came up with to curb carbon consumption under their Kyoto commitments, is on the brink of collapse. The carbon credit that traded internationally for 34 euros ($46) per ton of carbon dioxide in July 2008 fell to 2.81 euros in January and now hovers at below 5 euros. Australia introduced a carbon pricing scheme, or carbon tax, in 2012, but a motion to scrap the tax that charges the country’s biggest polluters for their emissions at a fixed price is under review by the senate after the new conservative government won the election promising to eliminate the levy that resulted in higher utility bills and day-to-day costs for consumers and manufacturers.

Few would argue that the entirety of human civilization should cooperate and work toward combating climate change for the future. But with the foggy prospects of the carbon market amid the prolonged slump in the global economy and demoralized Kyoto Protocol, it is too risky for us to proceed with the greenhouse gas agenda without considering the impact on the national economy and industrial competitiveness. We too should adjust our plans according to changed circumstances at home and abroad. The government should scale back its emission reduction target for 2020 and push back the timetable on its carbon trading scheme.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is the head of the Business Institute for Sustainable Development under the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

By Park Tae-jin
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