Cho envisions a ‘climate resilient society’ for Korea
Environment Minister Cho Myung-rae warned that climate change is no longer “another country’s story,” and urged Korea to become a “climate resilient society” as the country aims to become carbon-neutral.
“The actual rise in temperature on the Korean Peninsula is much more rapid than the average global temperature rise,” Cho said as he sat for an interview on Oct. 15 with Lee Moo-young, the managing editor of the Korea JoongAng Daily, at the Han River Flood Control Office in Dongjak District, southern Seoul.
He noted that Korea this year has experienced abnormal weather phenomena, including extreme heat waves, a prolonged rainy season and more frequent typhoons.
“Such trends can be experienced in real life,” said Cho. “Thus our society now has to become a climate resilient society, one that can adjust to climate change.”
Korea’s average annual temperature has increased by 1.8 degrees Celsius (3.2 degrees Fahrenheit) between 1912 and 2017, more than double the global average of 0.85 degrees, according to the Ministry of Environment.
The Partnering for Green Growth and the Global Goals 2030 (P4G) summit, initially scheduled to be held in Seoul in June, was delayed one year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The P4G, a public-private initiative to tackle climate change and deliver on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), was launched in 2018 in Copenhagen.
Cho said that the P4G is Korea’s chance to express its “will to change policies and create a social structure that can respond to climate change.”
He added that “such an opportunity will be linked to investments for a green transformation and the Green New Deal.”
Earlier this summer, the Korean government revealed its Green New Deal initiative, one of the two pillars of the Moon Jae-in administration’s New Deal program, aimed at achieving net-zero emissions and generating new jobs. It aims to speed along Korea’s transition to a low-carbon and green economy through building eco-friendly infrastructures, decentralizing energy and promoting green industries.
The government further pledged it will invest 42.7 trillion won ($37.8 billion) into the Green New Deal and create 659,000 jobs. Such green projects include expanding electric vehicles (EVs) and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) and the creation of smart water management and drainage systems.
Cho also addressed the 27 percent decrease in fine dust particle levels during the 2019-20 winter season, compared to last year, and said that government policies, meteorological conditions and the Covid-19 pandemic may each contribute equally to this phenomenon.
In an attempt to reduce the especially high levels of fine dust particles during the winter season, the Korean government implemented a fine dust seasonal management system between December 2019 and March 2020, which included a ban on Grade 5 emission vehicles and a reduction in the operation of coal-fired power stations.
Cho, a former professor of urban and regional planning at Dankook University, has served as environment minister for two years.
“As the government announced the Green New Deal, it also pledged it will be aiming for carbon neutrality,” said Cho. “Thus, our society cannot lose sight of this objective and work towards reaching it; I see this as the most important task and policy for the future that our generation is preparing for.”
The following are edited excerpts from the interview.
Q. The Korean Peninsula has recently experienced abnormal weather phenomena. What is the country doing to prepare for continued climate change?
A. We always thought of climate change as another country’s story, but Korea recently has experienced it in daily life. The actual rise in temperature on the Korean Peninsula is much more rapid than the average global temperature rise, around two times so.
In terms of temperature, climate change is dominating the Korean Peninsula, and the resulting seasonal phenomenon includes repeated heat waves, heavy rainfall between July and August — twice the usual amount during that period — and record flooding this summer.
It is difficult to predict the future with climate change. Due to abnormally high temperatures until June this year, there were expectations that we would have a record hot summer, but instead, because of unpredicted high temperatures in Siberia, we had cooler temperatures. Such trends can be experienced in real life rather than just seen in the news or read in books; thus our society now has to become a climate resilient society, one that can adjust to climate change.
Even though we may not be able to overcome it, we can still adjust. Climate resiliency is where politics, economy and everyday life and culture respond and adapt to climate change.
More specifically, it will be important to set policies that respond to climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions while creating a flexible social structure. It's not just about reducing greenhouse gas emissions physically and absolutely, but also changing the industrial structure […] as we aim for a carbon-neutral society by 2050.
We also need a long-term strategy and setup. The Green New Deal policy is a short-term task, but there is a strong significance in preparing for that. The Environment Ministry especially, when leading those preparations, takes such an approach. More specifically, we are preparing a strategy and plan for adjusting to climate change, and most representative is our third climate change adaptation plan.
Q. Can you explain more about this climate change adaptation plan?
A. It is being planned for the end of the year. The general framework is already made, aiming to minimize climate risk by each field, such as industry, city, water. We are considering whether to make it five years. There are different areas from the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal is not the law. This will be a plan based on legislation, so it will be different from the Green New Deal.
Q. Can you explain Korea’s Green New Deal in an accessible way for our readers? How does it differ from Green New Deals in other countries?
A. The Korean Green New Deal has a few characteristics. Firstly, it is a part of the Korean New Deal. There are the Digital New Deal and the Green New Deal, and at its foundation is the employment safety net, or the so-called Human New Deal. Thus, it differs from the European or American Green New Deals.
Globally, there is expected to be a Green New Deal boom. However, the Green New Deal of advanced countries have been about discourse and visions and not practical. However, our Green New Deal has a mid-term, five-year plan and is an implementable Green New Deal. Rather, we have not included a long-term plan — that will become more spelled out in the process.
Our Green New Deal is comprised of three axes: Low-carbon energy advancement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; a green transition of the urban living structure to encourage flexibility for a green transformation; and building a green industry ecosystem.
Q. The P4G summit slated for June was postponed one year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Do you think this is an opportunity to more thoroughly prepare for the conference?
A. Our government was set to host the second P4G summit, following Denmark. The host country has to have both status and capability. While we are an economic power, we are not leading in terms of our response to climate change and environmental issues. Holding the P4G summit is about changing our international status on this. It is about expressing the will to change policies and create a social structure that can respond to climate change. Such an opportunity will be linked to investments for a green transformation and the Green New Deal.
It is also about the intent to use the opportunity not to just host the summit, but to reverse our relatively weak status in terms of environmental issues. That is why ever since we declared that we will host the P4G, we have had more climate-related policies. In terms of a low emission development strategy (LEDS), our society has recently been declaring that we need to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Until last year, we worried if it was even possible, but this year, we are working to achieve this. The government, while discussions are ongoing, has a high level of understanding on this matter. It is only fitting as the host nation of the P4G.
Q. What preparations are happening for the P4G?
A. The environment and foreign ministers are jointly preparing for the summit. The Environment Ministry provides the environmental content, such as the themes of sessions, an agenda that can contribute to green growth, green economy and a low-carbon economy and a resolution that can implement this and build alliances. The Foreign Ministry’s role is to provide a framework so that many countries can participate.
Q. There was a decrease in the level of fine dust particles earlier this year — is it thanks to government policy, coronavirus lockdowns, or other factors?
A. Between December and March, the period when we implement the fine dust seasonal management system, the fine particle level is 30 percent higher than the yearly average. Decreasing this amount brings the level to the average, which is why we are reducing the high-concentration phenomenon. This resulted in a reduction of 27 percent lower [than the previous year] during this period.
There was much controversy over whether the key cause was government policy, meteorological conditions, or Covid-19, but all three were factors. We conducted a simulation and according to the analysis, depending on the month, factors differed. In the larger picture, I see each factor contributing about one-third. But it differs depending on the season.
I view meteorological conditions as being the most important factor. There were many meteorological conditions from the latter half of last year until currently which resulted in less fine dust, such as more stagnant wind velocity.
Meanwhile, Covid-19’s contribution isn’t as big as you would think. The electricity usage of small- and medium-sized businesses in Korea after March when the coronavirus outbreak became full-blown decreased slightly, but not by a lot. Big companies engaged more in even economic activities right after the seasonal management system ended.
Policy is also an important factor. Korea was able to confirm in the past seasonal management system period that it is possible to alleviate high concentration levels by reducing domestic emissions.
When we implement the next fine dust seasonal management system, we need to supplement the policy to raise efficacy, and I believe this is the only way to resolve the fine dust problem. We are also cooperating with China to exchange information and predict fine dust coming in from China to work on reduction of particles together. China implements its seasonal management system in October, one month earlier than we do. China is constantly making efforts to improve air quality, and while its fine dust particle levels are still high, recently, there definitely is a trend toward improvements. As Korea and China share the same air, the people of the two countries need to strengthen cooperation to improve air quality.
Q. Some worry that climate change will be put to the backburner during the post-coronavirus economic recovery process. Do you see an opportunity for a more active response to climate change and environmental issues?
A. The Covid-19 issue is seen as having started as an ecological crisis. Human intervention in the ecosystem has disturbed the virus world, and consequently, a virus in the animal world spread between humans. […] There have been periodic crises readjusting the economy every 50 to 60 years due to capitalism and business fluctuations, but this is the first time there has been a one-scale occurrence of such an ecological and environment crisis and global economic crisis.
At the end of this is a climate crisis, which is a life-threatening crisis, hence there is a need for a fundamental diagnosis, which is currently difficult. For example, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we need to give up on daily conveniences such as automobiles, but because we are not able to, we are in a dilemma. It is difficult to resolve this through policy, and because it is difficult, we need to push for mid-term and long-term plans, as well as setting short-term targets, in order to build a sustainable future for the next generation.
Q. As an environmental expert, what do you think is the direction Korea needs to go in terms of climate change policy, and what will our greatest challenge be in the next 20 to 30 years?
A. I would like to select two keywords as our task. If we look at the next 20 to 30 years, which would be until 2050, the whole world is aiming for carbon neutrality, even if there are still carbon emissions, to make an industrial structure or system that has net-zero emissions. That is the long-term development strategy we are trying to establish now, and we plan to submit it to the United Nations by the end of the year.
There still are discussions over whether we will be carbon neutral by 2050 or not. While we will have to wait and see what the result may be, as the government announced the Green New Deal, it also pledged it will be aiming for carbon neutrality. Thus, our society cannot lose sight of this objective and work towards reaching it; I see this as the most important task and policy for the future that our generation is preparing for.
Secondly, our society needs a green transformation. Industries need to absorb green values and logic. For example, Korea ranks 11th or 12th in the world economy, but our companies continue to rely on fossil fuels to maintain major industries. There is a substantive environmental cost to this. The environmental cost has been externalized and no one took responsibility for it until now. But now, it has to become internalized, and environmental costs have to be factored in.
Energy has to be produced in an energy-friendly manner, and that is the process of industries becoming green. Whether in the petroleum industry, steel industry, or automobile industry, environmental factors should play an important element in production. […] This also applies to our daily lives. We need to reduce the use of disposable products, recycle goods when possible and adapt green practices to our lifestyles to lessen the blow to the environment.
Q. Is there an energy source that can replace fossil fuels?
A. We need to search for it. In order to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, 65 to 80 percent of the total energy has to be replaced with renewable energy. It is also referred to as green eco-friendly energy, and includes solar panels, wind power, hydrogen energy and bioenergy. Of course, it is unclear if we will be 100 percent nuclear-free by then, but we need to drastically increase the renewable energy ratio.
Neighboring China also pledged carbon neutrality by 2060 recently. The key to achieving carbon neutrality depends on how much renewable energy is used. China has maintained its nuclear power plants and is heavily reliant on coal, but China is investing in renewable energy more than any other country, including solar panels and wind power. […] This cannot replace the main energy source overnight; Korea cannot become nuclear-free overnight. The most important condition to becoming nuclear-free and coal power free is to do so when there is a replaceable energy source, so that is a task to prepare for in the long-term.
Q. It's been two years since you became environment minister. What do you consider your greatest accomplishment thus far, and what do you want to achieve the most?
A. Looking back at the past year, all 365 days are the same, always walking on thin ice, always carrying many issues. The policies handled by the Ministry of Environment often deal with the lives of the people, thus, there are always problems, whether it is on waste management, fine dust particles, water quality, flooding, or recently the ASF [African swine fever] — it’s endless. It has been fruitful to respond to all of these issues constantly, and in between, build the framework toward a green transformation.
The Environment Ministry is working on issues that cannot be immediately seen by the people, intending to be one beat ahead. But overall, there is still a long road ahead. That is why the Environment Ministry believes that all policies need to go hand in hand with the people. The people have to be satisfied with the policy and support it for it to be an effective one.
BY SARAH KIM, ESTHER CHUNG [email@example.com]
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