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Ambition gap

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

1.5°C compatible pathways

South Korea’s enhanced NDC sets a 2030 GHG emissions reduction target of 40% below 2018 level, including the use of international credits and land use, land use change, and forestry (LULUCF). The previous NDC set an emissions reduction target of 24.4% below 2017 levels by 2030 (incl. credits and LULUCF).1 In terms of absolute emissions level, the 2021 NDC translates to 441 MtCO₂e/yr (incl. credits and LULUCF) in 2030.2

If contributions from credits and LULUCF sinks are excluded, South Korea domestic 2021 NDC equates to a 32% reduction below 2018 levels or 501 MtCO₂e/yr by 2030.55

South Korea’s 40% emissions reduction target is not compatible with a 1.5°C domestic emissions pathway. The country would need to reduce its annual GHG emissions to 62% (54-68%) below 2018 GHG emissions levels, reaching emissions levels of 288 (243-344) MtCO₂e by 2030, excluding LULUCF.

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 emissions reduction target, and provide substantial financial or other support for emission reductions to poor countries on top of its domestic reductions.

Long term pathway

In October 2020, President Moon Jae-in announced South Korea’s commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. This long-term target was later enshrined into law under the Carbon Neutrality Act.2

To be on a 1.5°C compatible pathway, South Korea’s emissions would need to peak immediately, and be reduced by 92-95% from 2017 levels by 2050, or in absolute values, 41-57 MtCO₂e/yr (excl. LULUCF) by 2050.42 South Korea will need to balance its remaining emissions through the use of carbon dioxide removal approaches such as from the land sector. When considering LULUCF sinks at their current levels (close to -41 MtCO₂e/yr) net zero GHG could be reached by mid-century.59

1 Republic of Korea. Submission under the Paris Agreement: The Republic of Korea’s Enhanced Update of its First Nationally Determined Contribution. (2021).

2 Climate Action Tracker. South Korea. CAT Nov 2021 Update. (2021).

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

4 Ministry of Environment. Carbon Neutrality Act Passed by National Assembly Heralding Economic and Social Transition Towards 2050 Carbon Neutrality. (2021).

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

6 Kwag, B. C., Han, S., Kim, G. T., Kim, B. & Kim, J. Y. Analysis of the effects of strengthening building energy policy on multifamily residential buildings in South Korea. Sustain. 12, (2020).

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

8 Climate Transparency. South Korea – Climate Transparency Report 2021. (2021).

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

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

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

12 Reuters Staff. S.Korea’s Moon vows to end new funding for overseas coal projects. Reuters (2021).

13 MOTIE. 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 Ng, C. IEEFA: Accepting gas as sustainable will hurt South Korea’s green finance credentials. IEEFA (2021).

16 Dong-hwan, K. Is nuclear energy eco-friendly? EU Taxonomy to test Korea’s new definition. The Korea Times (2022).

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

18 Climate Analytics. Assessing the Health Benefits of a Paris-Aligned Coal Phaseout for South Korea. (2021).

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

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

21 MOTIE. Third Energy Master Plan. (2019).

22 Solutions for Our Climate (SFOC). Fueling the Climate Crisis: South Korea’s public financing for oil and gas. (2021).

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

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

25 Shin, H. South Korea unveils $43 billion plan for world’s largest offshore wind farm. Reuters (2021).

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

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

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

29 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.

30 Climate Analytics & Solutions for Our Climate. Employment opportunities from a coal-to-renewables transition in South Korea. (2021).

31 Amoruso, F. M., Sonn, M. H., Chu, S. & Schuetze, T. Sustainable building legislation and incentives in korea: A case-study-based comparison of building new and renovation. Sustain. 13, (2021).

32 IEA. Korea 2020.(2020).

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

34 Moon, J. Remarks by H.E. President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea at the Leaders Summit on Climate. The Republic of Korea (2021).

35 SK. SK, leaping to become the global No. 1 hydrogen business in 2025… Keyword is hydrogen value chain integrated operation. (2021).

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

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

38 Republic of Korea. Vehicle Registration Status. e-Country Indicators. (2021).

39 The 2021 NDC is an update of the country’s first NDC submitted in 2016. An earlier update in 2020 set an absolute target of 24.4% emissions reduction from 2017 levels by 2030. However, this did not translate to a greater emissions reduction ambition over the 2016 NDC’s relative target.

40 Note that in their enhanced updated NDC the South Korean government has estimated CO₂ equivalency using the global warming potentials (GWP) of the IPCC’s Second Assessment Report (SAR). Here we have converted the 2018 emissions level using GWP from the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4). See the Climate Action Tracker assessment for further details.

41 See Climate Action Tracker assessment for underlying assumptions and assessment of current policies.

42 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.

43 Note that the current value given here refers to 2019 levels. Similarly, the current coal, gas, and power intensity values also refer to 2019 levels. Renewables includes both variable and conventional sources.

44 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.

45 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.

46 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 recently analysis from SFOC, Chungnam National University, and the Carbon Tracker Initiative indicates a coal phase out by 2028.

47 Korea’s energy intensity of economy (TJ/million USD2015) sits close to the 75th percentile of G20 nations.8

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

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

50 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.18

51 Note that South Korea excludes LULUCF in their base year emissions level (which are calculated using SAR GWP) but includes contribution from LULUCF sinks in their 2030 target. In addition, in September of 2021, the government enacted the “Framework Act on Carbon Neutrality and Green Growth,” or Carbon Neutrality Act, which stipulates a minimum emissions reduction level of 35% from 2018 levels by 2030 and “specifies procedures of implementing 2050 carbon neutrality vision”.4

52 South Korea’s previous NDC update stated that KRW 73.4 trillion would be invested by 2025 in three key pillars: KRW 30.1 trillion allocated for transition of green infrastructures, KRW 35.8 trillion for low-carbon and decentralized energy supply, and KRW 7.6 trillion for innovation in green industry.33 In July 2021 the Green New Deal was realigned to include a third pillar: laying a foundation for carbon neutrality.1

53 Based on unit level retirements given in 9th Basic Plan for Power Supply and Demand. President Moon stopped issuing permits for new domestic coal-fired power plants at the beginning of his administration.34

54 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. Of the 15 GW of hydrogen to be produced by 2040, the government plans that 8 GW will be used domestically and 7 GW will be exported.19

55 See Climate Action Tracker assessment for underlying assumptions.

56 The price of carbon under the K-ETS steadily increased from its initial 2015 value up until the beginning of 2020. The last two years have been marked by greater volatility and a general decline in price. However, the market has begun to recover in the last six months. As a comparison, the EU-ETS carbon price has seen a massive increase over the past two years. Please see here for allowance price data.

57 SK Group’s hydrogen plans include an initial phase of grey hydrogen production followed by a second phase where facilities are fitted CCUS technology to produce blue hydrogen. In the long term, the company aims to produce green hydrogen from renewable electricity.35

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

59 See Climate Action Tracker for historical LULUCF emissions.

60 The power sector received the largest allocation of allowances in the schemes initial year of operation, 2015.36

61 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.13,37

62 The 1.5°C compatible coal plant decommissioning schedules presented in the study could halve the number of premature deaths linked to air pollution from South Korean coal plants within the next 5 years and save over 18,000 lives (over 12,000 lives within South Korea) until the end of their operation, when compared to the current policy plan of phasing out coal in 2054.18

63 The study shows that following the 1.5°C compatible coal plant decommissioning schedules could create more than 62,000 more jobs per year on average from 2020 to 2025, and more than 92,000 jobs per year from 2025 to 2030, when compared to current policy plans.30

64 While aggregate energy demand has fallen, the energy intensity of certain end uses has increased. So while the energy intensity of space heating (per floor area) has decreased by 36%, and that of cooking (per dwelling) has decreased by around 39%, between 2000 and 2018, the energy intensities of water heating and residential appliances (per dwelling) have increased by 19% and 25% respectively over that period. Note that space heating is the largest energy user in the residential sector (accounting for 42% of total consumption).32

65 Specifically, the share of building energy demand met by electricity, hydrogen, and heating networks has grown from 14% in 1990 to 54% in 2019 while that of fossil and synthetic fuels has decreased from 84% to 45% over the same period. Consequently, the emissions intensity of buildings has declined from 70.5 to 27.4 gCO₂/MJ over that period.

66 Direct CO₂ emissions of building energy demand was 48 MtCO₂ in 2019. Under the 1.5°C compatible scenarios, direct CO₂ emissions from buildings reaches a level of 1-19 MtCO₂ by 2050.

67 Individual business consuming over 80 TJ/yr (15 ktCO₂e/yr) are also required to set legally binding energy reduction targets.

68 Direct CO₂ emissions of energy demands in the transport sector was about 106 MtCO₂ in 2019. The 1.5°C pathways have this declining to between 58-67 MtCO₂ in 2030 and further declining to between 2-18 MtCO₂ in 2050.

69 The pathway which assumes high energy demand is an exception. Nevertheless, the median of the pathways shows a decline of 27%.

70 To put this in context, Korea had a total of 24.4 million vehicles registered in 2020, so that the projected electric and hydrogen vehicles to be sold over the stated period would make up 15.8% of the current total.38

Methodology

South Koreaʼs total GHG emissions

excl. LULUCF MtCO₂e/yr

Displayed values
Reference year
−100%−80%−60%−40%−20%0%19902010203020502070
Net zero GHG excl. LULUCF*
2066
Reference year
2017
1.5°C emissions level
−61%
NDC (domestic target)
−32%
Ambition gap
−29%
  • 1.5°C compatible pathways
  • Middle of the 1.5°C compatible range
  • Current policy projections
  • 1.5°C emissions range
  • Historical emissions
2030 emissions levels
Current policy projections
NDC (domestic target)
1.5°C emissions level
Ref. year 2017
737MtCO₂e/yr

Energy system transformation

In 2017, CO₂ emissions from energy combustion represent 85% of South Korea’s total GHG emissions. Although the government has announced a ban on new coal-fired power plants, unit level analysis of the country’s 9th Basic Plan for Power Supply and Demand shows that coal is set to be phased out in 2054.18 This is almost 25 years later than the phase-out year suggested by the 1.5°C pathways analysed here. Moreover, the 9th Basic Plan envisions converting several existing coal plants to combined cycle natural gas plants.23

Power and industry will be key sectors in driving the decarbonisation of primary energy demand, followed by transport. For 1.5°C compatibility, the use of fossil fuels should be halved by 2040 and reduced further in subsequent decades. Zero emissions sources (renewables, nuclear) should make up 43-66% of primary energy by 2050. Higher shares of renewables would reduce reliance on other technologies, such as fossil fuel CCS, linked to high costs, social acceptance, and safety issues.

The Korean Emissions Trading Scheme (K-ETS) is one of the country’s main cross sectoral policy instruments. Recently having increased in size, the K-ETS currently covers 69 subsectors within the following 6 sectors: heat and power, industry, buildings, transportation, waste, and the public sector. The current phase of the scheme, covering 2021-2025, has an average annual cap of 610 MtCO₂e and covers 74% of total emissions (excluding LULUCF).24,56

The power sector will play a large role in decarbonising the energy sector, particularly because decarbonisation efforts in other sectors, such as transportation, will rely on electrification.3 However, South Korea also plans to utilise hydrogen fuel for transportation, ushering in the world’s first hydrogen law in 2021.25 SK Group, the country’s largest oil refiner, is set to play a major role in hydrogen development.57 The government has also announced plans to build an 8.2 GW offshore wind farm, which would be the world’s largest when built.26,58 Apart from providing renewable electricity to the nation’s power grid, the wind farm also has the potential to produce green ammonia as a fuel for maritime shipping, another sector which the government has prioritized in its decarbonization efforts.21,27,28

Methodology

South Koreaʼs primary energy mix

petajoule per year

Scaling
SSP1 Low CDR reliance
201920302040205010 000
SSP1 High CDR reliance
201920302040205010 000
Low Energy Demand
201920302040205010 000
High Energy Demand - Low CDR reliance
201920302040205010 000
  • Negative emissions technologies via BECCS
  • Unabated fossil
  • Renewables incl. Biomass
  • Nuclear and/or fossil with CCS

South Koreaʼs total CO₂ emissions

excl. LULUCF MtCO₂/yr

020040060019902010203020502070
  • 1.5°C compatible pathways
  • 1.5°C emissions range
  • Middle of the 1.5°C compatible range
  • Historical emissions

1.5°C compatible emissions benchmarks

Key emissions benchmarks of Paris compatible Pathways for South Korea. The 1.5°C compatible range is based on the Paris Agreement compatible pathways from the IPCC SR1.5 filtered with sustainability criteria. The median (50th percentile) to 5th percentile and middle of the range are provided here. Relative reductions are provided based on the reference year.

Reference year
Indicator
2017
Reference year
2019
2030
2040
2050
Year of net zero GHG
incl. BECCS excl. LULUCF and novel CDR
Total GHG
Megatonnes CO₂ equivalent per year
737
729
288
243 to 344
116
68 to 129
49
41 to 57
2066
2059
Relative to reference year in %
−61%
−67 to −53%
−84%
−91 to −83%
−93%
−94 to −92%
Total CO₂
MtCO₂/yr
668
659
251
213 to 304
100
34 to 115
18
9 to 46
2062
2054
Relative to reference year in %
−62%
−68 to −55%
−85%
−95 to −83%
−97%
−99 to −93%

Footnotes