Green growth or greenwashing?Six years ago, Korea unveiled its “green growth”’ strategy to the world, which was supposed to combine economic growth with environmental sustainability, and, in particular, reduce carbon emissions. Despite the fact that nobody knew precisely what “green growth” was supposed to mean or how it differed from “sustainable development,” outside observers lauded Korea as pathbreaking. Here was a country that could bridge the divide between the developed and developing world, and perhaps provide the type of climate leadership the world so desperately needed. If that meant adding a new catchphrase to the lexicon, then so be it.
As the world addressed climate change in New York last week, it is worth looking back and questioning what the Korean green growth strategy actually has accomplished. Unfortunately, the answer is not encouraging. The starting point in any evaluation has to be the centerpiece of Lee Myung-bak’s green growth strategy, namely the 22 trillion won ($20.7 billion) Four Rivers project to restore the Han, Nakdong, Geum and Yeongsan rivers. From its inception, the project was roundly criticized as an environmental boondoggle that simply provided jobs to the former president’s allies in the construction sector, criticism that only intensified after the appearance of massive algal blooms upon completion. Last year’s report by the Board of Audit and Inspection seems to support such criticism, stating that construction was shoddy and poses a serious threat to the environment.
In the climate change arena, the results are not much better. Short-term trends are grim, and long-term goals are already being altered. Korea’s 2008 energy plan set an overall renewable target of 11 percent of total supply by 2030; the target date has since been pushed back to 2035. An ambitious carbon emissions trading system scheduled to be implemented next year has been significantly reduced in scope, and a tax on vehicular carbon emissions pushed back from 2015 to 2020. According to one recent report, Korea is expected to have carbon emissions of more than a billion tons in 2020, or 32 percent more than predicted by the Environment Ministry.
Meanwhile, growth of renewables over the past six years has been minimal, at least when compared to other developed countries. At the end of 2012, for example, Korea had less than 500 megawatts of installed wind capacity. By comparison, Spain - with a roughly similar population and GDP - had 21,673 megawatts. Meanwhile, Korea’s solar capacity of 442 megawatts in 2013 paled before the installed solar capacity in many European countries and Japan, with 6,900 megawatts of solar capacity. In sum, by the end of 2012, less than 2 percent of Korea’s electricity generation came from renewable energy, including hydropower, while total greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise steadily. In part, Korea’s lack of renewable capacity is a product of its mountainous terrain, but only in part; the fact is that central and local governments have shown little will to effectively and urgently implement renewable energy projects or incentivize the private sector to do so.
What about nuclear? A consistent criticism from the left was that Korea’s green growth strategy put too much emphasis on nuclear energy. From a climate perspective, however, this was probably the strategy’s greatest strength; accelerated development of nuclear energy, despite its drawbacks, was and is the only realistic way for Korea to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even here, however, green growth has failed. From 2009-12, the share of nuclear power in Korea’s energy portfolio actually decreased slightly, from 13.1 percent to 11.4 percent of consumption. Future planning also has de-emphasized nuclear power; while the 2008 National Energy Plan anticipated nuclear making up 41 percent of Korea’s energy portfolio in 2035, that figure has been reduced to 29 percent. The difference is almost certain to be made up by fossil fuels, with new natural gas plants likely to replace coal power.
Have there been any benefits to Korea’s turn to green growth? New institutions have been established and funded, but to what end? Dozens of conferences have been hosted to allow a rotating crew of academic and bureaucrats to introduce “green growth” to the world. International experts have lauded Korea’s climate change leadership. In fact, as an exercise in nation-branding (or greenwashing), green growth seems to be a relative success. On the ground, however, there is little evidence of environmental progress. Korea is certainly not alone in dropping the ball on climate change, and its responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions to date is much less than that of the United States, China or many other countries. But hopes that Korea’s green growth policy would usher in a new era of sustainability seem to be going unfulfilled.
*The author is an associate professor at the Graduate School of International and Area Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
by Andrew Wolman