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South Korea Current situation

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

Emissions profile

In 2017, South Korea’s emissions were 713 MtCO₂e, excluding LULUCF, mostly composed of CO₂ emissions from fuel combustion in the energy sector (85%).

Fuel combustion for electricity and heating is the main source of GHG emissions, accounting for 36% of the total, and these are overwhelmingly CO₂ emissions (99%). Fuel combustion for the production of steel and road transport also contributes significantly, accounting for 14% and 13% of total GHG emissions, respectively (again, 99% of this is CO₂ emissions). Outside the energy sector, industrial processes from cement production contribute 4% of total GHG emissions.9

While the country’s emissions growth rate and emissions intensity of GDP has been declining over the last three decades, per capita emissions have shown a steady and consistent rise.48 Current policy projections indicate that in 2030, South Korea’s emissions will be within a range of 649-691 MtCO₂e/yr, well above the 2030 emissions level required by the country’s current NDC – 501 MtCO₂e/yr excluding LULUCF, or 32% below 2018 levels.

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

South Koreaʼs current GHG emissions

MtCO₂e/yr

Displayed values

By sector

  • Power
  • Industry (energy use)
  • Transport
  • Buildings
  • Other
  • Fugitive emissions
  • Industry (processes)
  • Agriculture
  • Waste
  • LULUCF
Energy (86%)⟵ LULUCF negative emissions

By gas

  • CO₂
  • CH₄
  • Other
  • N₂O
091%0

Sectors by gas

Energy
098%0
Agriculture
063%0
Industry (processes)
066%0

Energy system

South Korea’s current fuel mix (as of 2019) is largely fossil fuel based with coal, natural gas, and oil comprising 29%, 18%, and 38% of the total primary energy mix respectively.49 Nuclear makes up another 14% while renewables, including biomass, comprise 2%. Coal’s share in electricity generation is 43%, followed by 25% for nuclear, 25% for natural gas, 2% for oil, and 5% for renewables, including biomass.

In recognition of the impacts of coal, such as air pollution, the South Korean government has placed a nationwide ban on the construction of new coal-fired power plants.50 The government’s coal phase-out plans include both an increase in renewable generation and the conversion of some existing coal units to natural gas.1,5 Historically, South Korea has also made large financial contributions to international coal development, but recently committed to ending its support for coal plants abroad.1012 However, the government has somewhat backpedalled on their commitments, granting exemptions for coal plant retrofitting and related projects, even while major Korean financial groups have announced plans for carbon neutral portfolios.2

South Korea has also announced plans to move away from nuclear power and increase the amount of renewables in its generation mix.13 Nuclear energy has played a significant role in its energy mix since the 1970’s, making South Korea a country with the highest density of nuclear power plants in the world. However, following the 2011 Fukushima meltdown in Japan, public opinion turned against nuclear power, with many in the country voting to decrease nuclear’s share in the country’s energy mix.14

The government has recently released its K-taxonomy, intended to guide sustainable finance. While nuclear has not been included as a suitable investment, gas and LNG have. Natural gas is not a transition fuel. Any investment in this fossil fuel is highly likely to lead to stranded assets and carbon lock-in.15,16

Targets and commitments

Economy-wide targets

Target type

Base year emissions target

NDC target

Overall NDC target:

  • 40% below 2018 by 2030 or 441 MtCO₂e/yr by 2030 including the use of international credits and land sinks.1,2,51

Domestic NDC target:

  • 32% below 2018 by 2030 or 501 MtCO₂e/yr (excluding LULUCF and the use of international credits).2

Market mechanism

  • The Korean Emissions Trading Scheme (K-ETS) was launched in January 2015 and currently, in its third phase (2021-2025), covers 73.5% of national GHG emissions (69 subsectors and 685 companies), with an auction volume of 10%.1,2 For comparison, the EU ETS has a 57% auction volume.3
  • The GHG Energy Target Management System, covers emitters that fall outside the scope of K-ETS.

Long-term target

  • A goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 announced through its 2050 Carbon Neutral Strategy and enshrined into law under the Carbon Neutrality act. The target covers CO₂ emissions only.2

Sector coverage

EnergyIndustryWasteAgricultureLULUCF

Greenhouse gas coverage

CO₂CH₄HFCsN₂OSF₆

Sectoral targets

Energy

  • KRW 61 trillion (USD 51.7 billion) will be invested by 2025 as a part of its Green New Deal.1,52
  • Six pilot hydrogen-based cities will be created under Green New Deal to promote development of hydrogen production, storage, and utilisation.17
  • Hydrofluorocarbon emissions from industrial processes will be reduced by 80% by 2045, once the Kigali Amendment to Montreal Protocol is ratified.5 As of yet, it does not appear South Korea has ratified this amendment.

Transport

  • 10,000 EV charging stations and 310 hydrogen fuelling stations by 2022.5
  • 3 million electric vehicles and 850,000 hydrogen vehicles by 2030.
  • 1.13 million electric vehicles and 200,000 hydrogen vehicles, and charging infrastructure (45,000 charging equipment, 450 hydrogen fuelling stations, hydrogen production bases, etc.) by 2025.17
  • Current requirement that transportation fuel (diesel) contain a minimum of 3% biodiesel.8
  • Green ships initiative targets a 70% reduction of GHG emissions in maritime shipping by 2030 compared to 2008 levels.20

LULUCF

  • Ministry of oceans and fisheries plans to restore 20 mud flats with a total length of 4.5 km by 2025.5

Power

  • Phase out of coal power generation in 2054.18,53
  • Renewable energy capacity to expand to 78 GW (59% solar and 32% wind) by 2034. Up from 20 GW in 2019.13
  • Plans to expand power generation from hydrogen fuel cells to 15 GW by 2040, up from current 308 MW in 2018.2,19,54
  • Increase power from distributed renewable energy resources to up to 30% by 2040.5

Buildings

  • A total of KRW 20 trillion is to be invested in “green remodelling” of 225,000 public rental homes and 2000 public buildings.5
  • Additionally, 2835 schools will be remodelled into “green smart schools.” This is expected to reduce emissions by 190 kTCO₂.7
  • Target of 38% reduction in energy intensity (TOE/million won) from 2017 levels by 2040.21

Waste

  • Government is pushing for a phase out of plastics and a reduction in single-use waste by 2050.5

Agriculture

  • Plans to deploy 7000 ha of “smart farms” and 5000 units of “smart livestock shelters” by 2022, along with three “smart fish farm clusters” by 2023.5

Footnotes