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What is South Koreaʼs pathway to limit global warming to 1.5°C?

In brief

This is a summary of the most important findings of our analysis. Get a brief overview over the most important figures and entry points into the various parts of the in depth analysis.

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Ambition gap

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South Koreaʼs total GHG emissions

excl. LULUCF MtCO₂e/yr

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Displayed values
Reference year
−100 %−80 %−60 %−40 %−20 %0 %2000202020402060123456
  • 1.5°C compatible pathways
  • Middle of the 1.5°C compatible range
  • Current policy projections
  • 1.5°C emissions range
  • Historical emissions
  1. 1
    1.5°C emissions level
    −61 %
  2. 2
    NDC (domestic target)
    −19 %
  3. 3
    −24 %
  4. 4
    Ambition gap
    −42 %
  5. 5
    Net zero GHG incl. BECCS excl. LULUCF and novel CDR
  6. 6
    Reference year
Key messages

South Korea’s 2020 NDC sets a 2030 GHG emissions reductions target of 24.4% below 2017 levels, including land use, land use change, and forestry (LULUCF).1,2 While this is not a strengthening of its previous NDC, the ruling party recently announced a strengthened target of 40% below 2017 levels, and to be implemented within 8 years by 2030. In May 2021 the government of Korea announced that its NDC update to be released in October 2021 will be aligned with “efforts” to limit temperature increase to 1.5°C.3,4,5

1 Republic of Korea. Submission under the Paris Agreement The Republic of Korea’s Update of its First Nationally Determined Contribution. 1–27 (2020).

2 Climate Action Tracker. South Korea. CAT July 2020 Update. (2020).

3 United States – Republic of Korea Partnership. FACT SHEET: United States – Republic of Korea Partnership | The White House. (2021).

4 Chi-dong, L. (LEAD) Moon: S. Korea to set higher goal of cutting emissions, submit it to U.N. this year. Yonhap News Agency (2021).

5 Gerretsen, I. South Korea proposes cutting emissions 40% by 2030. Climate Home News (2021).

6 Climate Analytics. South Korea. CAT Climate Target Update Tracker. (2020).

7 Climate Analytics. Transitioning towards a zero-carbon society : science-based emissions reduction pathways for South Korea under the Paris Agreement. (2020).

8 Republic of Korea. 2050 Carbon Neutral Strategy of the Republic of Korea: Towards a sustainable and green society. (2020).

9 Gerretsen, I. South Korea 2050 net zero pledge spurs renewables investment. Climate Home News (2021).

10 Greenhouse Gas Inventory and Research Center of Korea. 2019 National Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report. (2019).

11 Gokkon, B. Green groups target South Korea’s bailout of coal power plant builder. Mongabay (2020).

12 Dae-sun, H. Doosan Heavy’s financial decline and its failure to read the global power generation industry. Hankyoreh. (2020).

13 Ministry of Trade Industry and Energy of South Korea. The 9th Basic Plan for Power Supply and Demand Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment. (2020).

14 Chung, J.-B. Let democracy rule nuclear energy. Nature | News (2018).

15 Lee, J. H. & Woo, J. Green new deal policy of south korea: Policy innovation for a sustainability transition. Sustain. 12, 1–17 (2020).

16 Ganti, G. et al. Assessing the Health Benefits of a Paris-Aligned Coal Phaseout for South Korea. (2021).

17 Stangarone, T. South Korean efforts to transition to a hydrogen economy. Clean Technol. Environ. Policy 23, 509–516 (2020).

18 Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries of South Korea. “2030 Greenship-K Promotion Strategy” to Dominate the Global Green Ship Market. What’s News (2021).

19 Ministry of Education of the Republic of Korea. MoE Announces Plans for Green-Smart Schools of the Future(2020-07-17). (2020).

20 ICAP. Korea Emissions Trading Scheme. (2021).

21 Byung-wook, K. [News Focus] World’s first ‘hydrogen law’ takes effect. What’s in it? The Korea Herald (2021).

22 Jaewon, K. South Korea’s SK bets $16bn on hydrogen: Five things to know. Nikkei Asia (2021).

23 Atchison, J. The Korean New Deal and ammonia energy. Ammonia Energy Association (2021).

24 Min-hee, J. South Korean Companies to Collaborate in Green Ammonia Market. Business Korea (2021).

25 Climate Analytics. Transitioning towards a coal-free society : science based coal-phase out pathway for South Korea under the Paris Agreement. (2020).

26 Kim, Y. G. & Lim, J. S. Treatment of indirect emissions from the power sector in Korean emissions trading system. Environ. Econ. Policy Stud. (2020) doi:10.1007/s10018-020-00282-7.

27 Asia Development Bank. The Korea Emissions Trading Scheme: Challenges and Emerging Opportunities. (2018).

28 Lee, E. & Horslen, J. Next phase of S Korean ETS boosts fuel-switch potential. Argus Media (2020).

29 See Climate Action Tracker assessment for underlying assumptions. No details are provided on the level of LULUCF sinks and international credits on which the country intend to account for to meet its target. The Climate Action Tracker assume the level of LULUCF sinks and international credits to remain the same as in the 2030 Roadmap.

30 Note that the current value given here refers to 2017 levels. Similarly, the current coal, gas, and power intensity values also refer to 2017 levels.

31 Costs of carbon capture and storage (CCS) in the power sector have remained stagnant over the last decade. CCS technologies in the power sector also have a non-trivial sustainability footprint in terms of increased water use, higher resource demands, a mining and production footprint, and in general do not address local air pollution concerns. The relative cost trend between CCS in the power sector and renewables means that CCS in the power sector is increasingly unlikely to be able to ever compete with renewable energy.

32 Phase out is defined as occurring when one of the following conditions is met: relative generation of gas/coal drops below 1% of total generation or generation reaches a level equivalent to capacities ranging from 250-500MW and capacity factor of 20-80%. See methodology here.

33 According to a joint analysis between Climate Analytics and Solution for Our Climate (SFOC), South Korea must phase out coal by 2029. Note that the study based its analysis on the global model IEA Energy Technologies Perspectives Beyond 2 degrees Scenario (IEA ETP B2DS 2017) not assessed in this analysis. A recent analysis from SFOC, Chungnam National University and the Carbon Tracker Initiative indicates a coal phase out by 2028.

34 While global cost-effective pathways assessed by the IPCC Special Report 1.5°C provide useful guidance for an upper-limit of emissions trajectories for developed countries, they underestimate the feasible space for such countries to reach net zero earlier. The current generation of models tend to depend strongly on land-use sinks outside of currently developed countries and include fossil fuel use well beyond the time at which these could be phased out, compared to what is understood from bottom-up approaches. The scientific teams which provide these global pathways constantly improve the technologies represented in their models – and novel CDR technologies are now being included in new studies focused on deep mitigation scenarios meeting the Paris Agreement. A wide assessment database of these new scenarios is not yet available; thus, we rely on available scenarios which focus particularly on BECCS as a net-negative emission technology. Accordingly, we do not yet consider land-sector emissions (LULUCF) and other CDR approaches which developed countries will need to implement in order to counterbalance their remaining emissions and reach net zero GHG are not considered here due to data availability.

35 Population and GDP statistics from United Nations and World Bank databases respectively.

36 Note that these fossil fuel power generators do not utilise carbon capture and storage technology.

37 The government is also likely motivated by concerns over fine particulate matter emissions, a reason given by the Ministry of Environment for shutting down old coal-fired power plants early.16

38 Based on unit level retirements given in 9th Basic Plan for Power Supply and Demand.

39 South Korea currently produces hydrogen from petrochemical by-products and would likely need to utilise LNG for hydrogen production as demand grows. In the long term, the government is considering the use of green hydrogen.17

40 The price of carbon steadily increased from its initial 2015 value. However, 2020 saw prices rapidly decrease, and the market is yet to recover. As a comparison, the EU-ETS carbon price has seen a massive increase over the last year. Please see here for allowance price data.

41 Currently, the UK’s Hornsea 1 is the world’s largest offshore wind farm with a capacity of 1.2 GW.

42 See Climate Action Tracker for historical LULUCF emissions.

43 The power sector received the largest allocation of allowances in the schemes initial year of operation, 2015.27

44 Accounting for carbon price in the dispatch order, known as environmental dispatch, has been listed in the 9th Basic Plan for Power Supply and Demand as a potential management plan to limit the amount of power generated by coal generators.13,28

If contributions from credits and LULUCF sinks are excluded, South Korea domestic 2020 NDC equates to a 19% reduction below 2017 levels or 578 MtCO2e/yr by 20306,7 and its recently announced updated target would translate in domestic emissions reduction of 35% below 2017 levels or a level of emissions of 467 MtCO2e by 2030.29

Whilst an improvement, the recently announced 40% by 2030 target is not yet compatible with a 1.5°C domestic emissions pathway for South Korea. In fact, South Korea would need to reduce its annual GHG emissions to 61% (55-66%) below 2017 GHG emissions levels or reaching emissions levels of 278 (242-322) MtCO2e by 2030, excluding LULUCF. Before formalising its new NDC target the South Korean government needs to work on bringing it closer to a 1.5° compatible reduction range.

A fair share contribution to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions compatible with the Paris Agreement would require South Korea to go further than its domestic target, and provide substantial support for emission reductions to poor countries on top of its domestic reductions.

South Korea submitted its 2050 Carbon Neutral Strategy to the UN in December of 2020. This followed an earlier announcement by President Moon Jae-in October regarding the government’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.6,9

Paris Agreement compatible pathways show that remaining GHG emissions by 2050 for South Korea should not exceed 39 MtCO2e/yr by 2050 or 95% reduction below 2017 levels. To reach net zero GHG by 2050, remaining emissions will need to be balanced by the use of carbon dioxide removal approaches.

With its historical sinks of around -41 MtCO2e/yr in 2017, South Korea is well positioned to have the required amount of negative emissions by mid-century if current sinks are maintained.34

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Key messages

To achieve a 1.5°C compatible pathway, South Korea would need to increase the renewable energy share in its power generation mix from 3% to 25-40% in 2030 and 68-92% in 2050.30

Other Paris Agreement compatible pathways analysed in similar studies show renewable penetration as high as 48% by 2030. A higher share could avoid reliance on nuclear energy or carbon capture and storage.31 Current policy states a less ambitious goal of a 20% renewable energy share in 2030 and 30-35% in 2040.8

With current shares of coal and gas at 46% and 22% respectively, South Korea will need to shift from fossil fuels within the next decade in order to be on a Paris Agreement compatible emissions pathway. Coal will need to be phased out before 2030, with some studies showing phase out date of 2028 .32,33 Gas will need to be phased out by 2039-2048.7

South Korea’s current power emissions intensity is 570 gCO2/kWh. Ensuring 1.5°C compatibility would necessitate a 95% emission intensity reduction by 2030 and a fully decarbonised power sector by 2040.

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Key power sector benchmarks

Renewables shares and year of zero emissions power Including the use of BECCS

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Current targets
Required targets
  1. 2030 20 % Renewable share
  1. 2030 25 to 40% Renewable share
  1. 2040 30 to 35% Renewable share
  1. 2040-2046 Zero emissions power
  1. 2050 68 to 92% Renewable share