Korea has global environmental role, says minister
Korea is ready to share its green growth technologies with developing countries as the world tries to go carbon neutral by 2050, said Environment Minister Han Jeoung-ae ahead of Seoul’s climate change summit next month.
“We would like to stress at the P4G Seoul Summit that a green [economic] recovery will be impossible if we do not move toward carbon neutrality together and emphasize inclusiveness,” said Han in an interview with Lee Moo-young, managing editor of the Korea JoongAng Daily, last Friday at the National Assembly in Yeouido, western Seoul.
Korea will host the Partnering for Green Growth and the Global Goals 2030 (P4G) Seoul Summit on May 30 and 31. The virtual conference will bring together heads of states, CEOs, investors and opinion leaders to discuss climate change and the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
It will be the first multilateral summit on the environment to be hosted by Korea.
“By suggesting policies and sharing technologies, we hope to assuage the concerns of developing countries so that they can partake in carbon neutrality goals,” added Han. This could include sharing with developing countries plastic recycling technology, building process facilities and helping them to operate them at the start in order to help achieve a so-called circular economy and a green transformation.
The interview was held a week ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden’s virtual Leaders Summit on Climate scheduled for Thursday and Friday, coinciding with Earth Day on April 22.
Han pointed out that Korea is prepared to play a bridging role between developed and developing nations in a series of global conferences related to climate this year leading to the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP26 summit, to be held in November in Glasgow.
The 2nd P4G Summit was originally planned for last year but was postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The inaugural P4G Summit was held in Denmark in October 2018 and led to the adoption of the “Copenhagen Declaration for Action,” which highlighted the need for accelerated climate action through leadership of governments, businesses and civil societies.
There are expectations that the tentatively titled “Seoul declaration” will be adopted this time around.
The theme of the 2nd summit is “Inclusive Green Recovery towards Carbon Neutrality,” and sessions are expected to cover food and agriculture, water, energy, cities and the circular economy, a system that does not dispose of consumed resources but puts them back into the economy.
There are 12 countries in the P4G: Bangladesh, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, the Netherlands, South Africa, Vietnam and Korea. It is partners with five organizations including the Global Green Growth Institution, and over 240 global businesses and civic groups.
Han pointed out that achieving net-zero emissions won’t be possible through the efforts of a central government alone, noting that there is an “immense role for local governments to play,” something that will be discussed in a special session at the summit.
This is also the first year in which countries begin to take action for the implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement, a legally-binding international treaty on climate change, which aims to substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. The climate accord aims to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably to 1.5 degrees, compared to pre-industrial levels.
Immediately prior to taking the post as Korea’s environment minister on Jan. 22 and helming the national drive for carbon neutrality by 2050, Han served as executive director of the Special Committee on Carbon Neutrality. The three-term lawmaker also served as a director of the ruling Democratic Party’s policy committee and served as a co-head of the National Assembly Forum on Climate Change.
Han, who started her career as a labor activist, previously served as head of the Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency Union and as a commissioner of international cooperation for the Federation of Korean Trade Unions.
She received her bachelor's degree in environmental engineering at Pusan National University and her doctorate in industrial engineering at Britain’s University of Nottingham.
“In the past, we were always following other countries already in front of us,” said Han in the interview. “But that’s not what the international community wants from us anymore.”
The P4G summit, she said, will be “a venue for Korea to properly declare that we will do our part as a responsible member of the international community to achieve sustainable growth.”
The following are edited excerpts of the interview.
A. The P4G first originated from the 3GF, or Global Green Growth Forum, a public-private cooperative partnership led by Denmark in 2011. That became the four Gs — green growth and global goals — as a partnership aiming for solidarity in achieving international goals related to the climate crisis and sharing the burden of green growth by 2030.
The 12 member states of P4G include two or three developed countries, including Denmark and the Netherlands, and the rest are developing countries. In general, developed countries have taken the path of fossil fuels, but such a method is not sustainable. Thus, since the turn of the millennium, there has been talk of a need to transition to green growth. However, in the perspective of developing countries, it seemed unfair for developed countries that have already advanced their economies to try to set restrictions upon developing nations. At the time, while the idea of green growth was accepted in concept, there were questions as how to achieve it substantively. Since then, in the past two decades, many green growth technologies have been secured. Now, renewable green energy is much more competitive in Europe, for example. We are now able to share with developing nations the notion that sustainable development is possible through green growth and also help guide them to such a path. The P4G is such a platform.
What sort of role is Korea expected to play by hosting the P4G summit?
I feel that developing and developed countries’ perception of Korea has changed very much in terms of its international status and position. President Biden will be hosting the Leaders Summit on Climate, followed by the G-7 and G-20 summits and COP26. The first phone call I received after I took office was from [U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate] John Kerry. He conveyed to me that there are many aspects of Korea, but it is generally viewed as a country that developed in an unbelievably short period of time and in the process of development, the scale of technology was very astonishing, while the innovative part of the technology was even more surprising. Thus, he said it was very meaningful that Korea has declared a carbon neutrality target by 2050. And Kerry expressed that he very much hoped that we can work together in investment in research and development and innovation in technology on the global level.
In the past, we were always following other countries already in front of us. But that’s not what the international community wants from us anymore. Referring to the miracle that has been achieved over the past 70 years since the [1950-53] Korean War, especially the economic growth of the past 30 some years, Kerry conveyed his hopes that we could share that miraculous process and play a role in giving motivation and guidance to developing countries. I also got the sense that [the United States] would like Korea to play a role in the international meetings coming up this year.
That is why the P4G, as the first multilateral summit in the environmental sector hosted by Korea, is very significant for us. It will also be a venue for Korea to properly declare that we will do our part as a responsible member of the international community to achieve sustainable growth.
What message does the Korean government want to convey to the international community through the summit?
The theme of this summit is “Inclusive Green Recovery towards Carbon Neutrality.” There is not a single country that has not been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. People say that they'd like to go back to before the pandemic. But going back to the period before Covid-19 is just a return to the same situation. If you look at why Covid-19 occurred, it was a man-made environmental crisis. Before Covid-19, we used to think that we don’t have to produce everything in Korea, that it’s okay because the global supply chain system is perfect. We thought we can get supplies from other countries, produce goods and export again. However, when borders closed because of Covid-19, we couldn’t rely on the global supply chain anymore. The international community, founded on solidarity and cooperation, completely shut down because of a single virus. And we made that virus. If we were to go back to the situation before Covid-19, then what is to prevent a similar situation from recurring?
That is why we need a green transformation, for the international community to go forward together to a better, more sustainable society, one in which another Covid-19 situation does not recur. I think countries share a consensus on this. We would like to stress at the P4G Summit that a green recovery will be impossible if we do not move toward carbon neutrality together and emphasize inclusiveness to involve developing countries.
What can we expect in a Seoul declaration at the end of the P4G summit? Can we expect some specific action, such as a ban on fossil fuel-based vehicles?
Something that concrete may be difficult. A ban on diesel vehicles is a very sensitive issue because we are a major automobile manufacturing country. For countries that simply import cars, it’s easier, because they can just ban imports on fossil fuel vehicles. Developed countries may look to Korea to take bolder action, but on the other hand, domestically, we will have to seek ways to minimize the impact on Korean manufacturers and labor while speeding along the green transformation process. That is why including such an action in the P4G declaration may be difficult. However, when we write up a roadmap to 2050, we do not expect diesel vehicles to be running in the year 2050 — this is something that all countries recognize. But exactly when the transition will happen is something that will need to be cautiously discussed with the stakeholders.
Through the P4G Summit, we would like to share green inclusiveness and carbon neutrality targets with developing countries. And by suggesting policies and sharing technologies, we hope to assuage the concerns of developing countries so that they can partake in carbon neutrality goals without fears. Developing countries are still generally dependent on fossil fuels and coal, which is not sustainable. We have to show the alternatives. Green finance is also important because it shows that investment is possible to allow for stable development through a green transformation.
However, simply setting up a green fund for climate response is not enough unless countries can know exactly how much they will receive. The international community needs to take this into consideration. We need to recognize developing countries’ paths would not be the same as that of developed nations. There needs to be a transformation in the way international financial institutions such as World Bank or International Monetary Fund (IMF) provide loans or grants, to keep at bay the anxiety of developing nations. Carbon neutrality will be possible only if developing nations have interest rates close to zero, and we will need bolder green funds and international financial methods.
The five areas covered in the P4G sessions are food and agriculture, water, energy, cities and the circular economy. How does waste reduction and plastic recycling fit in with creating a circular economy?
In terms of a circular economy, what is most important is drastically reducing use of raw material and for consumers to sort and reuse materials, enabling a circulation of resources. With the Covid-19 pandemic, everybody is using disposable items with a sense of guilt, trying to maintain social distancing while worrying about producing more CO2 emissions and damaging the environment. Plastic waste, when sorted properly, can be processed into recycled raw material and alternative energy. It’s not that we don’t have the technology — we've had it since the 1990s. But the reason why it didn’t catch on leading to a circular economy is because raw material was too cheap. Thus, reprocessing plastic was not competitive. But the situation has changed, with governments requiring reductions of carbon emissions. Now, there is economic value to recycling plastic. For example, the European Union is requiring all plastic bottles to contain 30 percent recycled content by 2030 and at least 25 percent by 2025. For our products to be competitive, we are in the process of institutionalization of such a policy and reforming laws in order to match such targets by 2030. Industries are also setting plans for a circular economy.
Can you elaborate on how we can share green growth technologies with developing countries?
Plastic waste is also a big problem in developing countries, and in Asian countries, it’s becoming marine litter and further damaging the ecosystem. At the P4G session on the circular economy, we would like to explain the technologies and share know-how in reprocessing plastic waste into recycled raw material as a part of efforts to set sustainable and slightly more ambitious joint goals for 2030. Developing countries, however, may question how feasible this may be. However, there is a general consensus on the principle of advancing a circular economy and reducing carbon emissions through a green transformation.
On the part of Korea, we can transfer the technology, install the facilities, and run it until the country can operate it normally. Green growth technology must be shared, and in that process, financial support must also be guaranteed in order to draw in developing countries. Otherwise, why would developing countries try to reach carbon neutrality? I don’t think it is realistic to ask them to take part in carbon neutrality targets without lowering the hurdles.
Water supply is another big issue, including recirculation of water and the supply of clean water. It can be an opportunity to share our ICT technology on this matter.
Domestic companies will have a big job reducing carbon emissions. Can emission cuts and economic growth really coexist?
It’s not accurate to say they can’t coexist. Developed nations including the EU are already achieving many things through green transformation. Korean companies are aiming for a global market, and in the future, products will require labels describing what kind of energy was used in the manufacturing process. The bar will continue to get higher to push for the use of renewable energy sources. Companies are also very well aware that if they do not transition, they will face difficulties, which is why they are separately announcing plans for carbon neutrality by 2050.
The Environment Ministry recently held a meeting with companies that produce high carbon emissions and they all said they feel the need for a green transformation but that that they need a lot of funds for the transition and would like government support. That is why we are in talks with financial authorities including the Financial Services Commission to make a bold green investment next year. According to a study by the Korea Development Bank, 300 major carbon emitting companies are responsible for over 70 percent of the total carbon emissions of the entire industrial sector. So the quicker the green transformation of these 300 companies, the more dramatic the reduction in total carbon emissions will be.
Korea has been experiencing extreme climate phenomena like heat waves and a record long monsoon season. What efforts are the Environment Ministry making towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions?
In renewable energy, we have made particular speed in the solar power sector. Other than that, an area that had a positive effect initially not expected is through the fine dust seasonal management system [implemented between December 2019 and March 2020 to reduce fine dust particles through banning of Grade 5 emission vehicles and a reduction in the operation of coal-fired power stations]. This not only reduced fine dust particles but also cut CO2 emissions. Developed countries are calling for shutting down coal-fired power plants for a reason — because they produce an incredibly high amount of carbon emissions. In fact, the cause of fine dust and carbon emissions are nearly identical, and they go hand in hand since cutting down the causes of fine dust also cuts CO2 emissions. Overall, the total amount of CO2 emissions produced from coal-fired power stations has decreased. Going at this pace, we are planning to shut down more old coal-fired power stations and transition to LNG (liquefied natural gas) and other renewable energy sources.
You will mark 100 days since you became environment minister at the end of this month. Looking ahead, what do you want to achieve the most during your term, and what do believe is the biggest task?
I took office in the fourth year of the Moon Jae-in administration, and in a way, I am tasked with wrapping up the Moon government’s state affairs [on the environment]. The president told me that creating a roadmap for the implementation of carbon neutrality by 2050 is building a foundation for the future. [Former UN Secretary General] Ban Ki-moon said recently that even if the government changes five times, carbon neutrality goals have to go on. So my task is to accurately make a roadmap to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 and to select the tasks of each sector in the transition process, such as energy, transportation, construction and circular economy, and to set a clear path to reach that goal.
As we make efforts to speed along the 2050 carbon neutrality targets and transition into a green economy, some ask, "Is it even possible?" And I say, "If it is possible for the Republic of Korea, it is possible for any country." Regarding our earth and ecosystem, I hope that we will to be able to hold our heads up when facing the future generation.
BY SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]