|Former U.N. Secretary-General and the National Council on Climate and Air Quality President Ban Ki-moon talks during his interview with The Korea Times. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul|
How Korea can transform from climate villain to climate hero
Two renewable energy experts call for alternatives for coal and nuclear power, public conscience's awakening
By Ko Dong-hwan
The ever-manifesting global alliance on lowering carbon emissions to curb the feared consequences of global warming has recently forced the South Korean government to announce on Oct. 28 the country would go "net zero" by 2050 ― bringing the net amount of carbon emissions to zero. The announcement came after the Moon Jae-in administration in July released the Green New Deal, a set of future-oriented policies invested with 73 trillion won ($66.2 billion) to minimize carbon emissions, as part of the game-changing Korean New Deal plan to restructure the country's economy.
But the Green New Deal stoked doubts and drew criticism over its superficiality and lack of detailed plans, as well as its focus on job creation and the economy rather than the dire environmental concerns already affecting lives. Since then, people have demanded an incisive and critical evaluation of the country's ongoing carbon reduction efforts that embrace both future industries and future generations.
One such evaluation has been shaped in The Korea Times' recent interview with former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Younghoon David Kim, CEO and chairman of one of South Korea's oldest energy conglomerates Daesung Group. Their verdict: to realize net zero, a new energy source to replace coal and nuclear power that the country heavily relies on and to stabilize the shortcomings of renewable energy sources would be required.
"The Moon administration's announcement of net zero is a welcome sign after the Green New Deal caught flak from many experts, including myself, for putting climate ambitions in the backseat to concentrate on the COVID-19-hit economy," said Ban, now heading the National Council on Climate and Air Quality (NCCA) established in 2019 directly under President Moon. "It also seems inevitable after China and Japan announced earlier this year going net zero by 2060 and 2050, respectively, and U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden promised to push for net zero by 2050 with a $2 trillion budget and new carbon adjustment fees and return to the Paris Agreement."
|Daesung Group CEO and Chairman Younghoon David Kim talks during his interview with The Korea Times. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul|
"Pillars of our country's industries like steelmaking and petrochemicals have hinged on coal and other carbon-intensive energies. Sixty coal power plants are active in South Korea and there are more to come. But our industrial leaders still seem lukewarm about doing away with coal."
About 30 industrial representatives from South Korea's small and medium-sized companies and from associations of trucking and petrochemical firms ― among the country's industries that are most responsible for carbon emissions ― met Ban at the NCCA's headquarters in Seoul's Jongno District on Nov. 11 to share opinions on national carbon reduction strategies.
The meeting was arranged ahead of the agency's petition with civic voices to the central government to better account for climate change risks in future policymaking, which is scheduled for the end of November. It also came after state broadcaster KBS released a poll result in early November showing that 87 percent of respondents think climate change risks are serious and yet 56 percent replied those risks are not being challenged by the country with enough effort.
Ban, who called himself "Mr. Climate," said the participants were "greatly concerned" about the country's reduced reliance on coal power in favor of more renewable energy. Their concerns arose from mistrust of the government's successful energy transition. "I assured them that during the remaining 30 years until our net zero deadline we can expect now-unfathomable scientific breakthroughs, like artificial intelligence, that will solve energy problems in our country's four major carbon emission sectors ― industry, power generation, transportation and buildings," Ban said.
Kim was concerned whether the country's future renewable-based energy mix can sustain the country's growing economy. He questioned: what will be the alternative if we completely depart from coal and reduce the use of nuclear power while still having to maintain our economic growth?
|Ban and Kim said the country needs a new alternative for coal and nuclear power if it is to realize the "net zero" goal by 2050. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul|
"While China is investing in nuclear power, the South Korean government wants to reconsider its position on it," said Kim. "But unless we come up with a new alternative energy with improved efficiency, we will hit the wall sooner or later with our current energy mix."
Underlying his concern is the biggest problem of renewable energy in the country ― an intermittent, unstable power supply, as Korea lacks "the high amount of sunlight seen in places like the Sahara Desert or the United Arab Emirates" for photovoltaic systems, according to Kim. This is especially problematic for South Korea which is overrun by energy-intensive industrial infrastructure, like vast networks of information communication technology.
"Whether running a single household or keeping a nation safe, energy security is an absolute imperative to prevent disastrous consequences like blackouts," said Kim, who was the chair of the World Energy Council from 2016 to 2019.
"This naturally leads our discussion of energy storage systems (ESS). Now, the capacity of our current ESS technology may cover cars but it cannot yet sustain our state power grid's tremendous volume. Without an ESS to stabilize the energy security of renewable power, the technology will remain a thorny issue which will surface as a problem to resolve in future."
|In this photo from March 2019, Ban speaks at a press conference at Cheong Wa Dae after accepting President Moon Jae-in's offer to lead the National Council on Climate and Air Quality, a newly introduced government organization tackling the country's rising air pollution. Yonhap|
Kim, whose company has been in the energy sector since 1947, admired the "energy efficiency" that drove the first and second Industrial Revolutions and dubbed it the key to a breakthrough in South Korea's current energy mix problems. Moreover, he predicted South Korea is where innovation in energy efficiency will take place, with its impact equivalent to that of the past industrial revolutions.
"What James Watt did during the First Industrial Revolution was not inventing a steam engine ― that already existed in his time period ― but drastically improving its efficiency. What Nikola Tesla did was raise the efficiency of existing AC generators. What they did was improve efficiency of the existing energy systems to the point of revolutionizing them," he said.
"Just like Pax Britannica or Pax Americana, which basically meant the world benefiting from energy revolutions, South Korea's advanced Fourth Industrial Revolution movements based on information technologies and good energy infrastructure could kick off something like Pax Koreana. It will make South Korea a global hero, a dramatic shift from its present onus of being tagged a climate change villain," he said, referencing Korea's state-financing of new coal power plant construction projects in Vietnam and Indonesia.
ESS is one of the keys with which South Korea can accomplish the energy efficiency-driven Pax Koreana because the country leads the world in ESS technologies, according to Kim.
Other key technologies that Daesung is investing in include power generation using various gravitational forces ― which Kim called "the most universal and cleanest force" ― and growing electricity-producing microbes.
|A graphic image of Vietnam's new Vung Ang 2 coal power plant in Ha Tinh Province, last updated on BankTrack's website in October 2020. Korea's Samsung C&T and Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) joined the power plant's construction project, prompting backlash from South Korean politicians and environmental activists for committing 'unethical' anti-green investment. Courtesy of BankTrack|
He mentioned Michael Faraday, a British scientist who contributed to electromagnetism and electrochemistry, saying, "Less than 100 years after Michael Faraday died, Tesla demonstrated a hydroelectric power generating system under the Niagara Falls ― using the gravity of a waterfall. The same goes with the concept of tidal power, which uses gravity based on the Earth-Moon orbital system."
Aside from Kim's technical approach, Ban said it was important to teach adolescents and young adults about the environment in public institutions ― which he was particularly upset about during the interview and blamed the South Korean central government for having neglected.
Only four universities in the country have environment-related programs, while less than two percent of the country's elementary, middle and high schools teach an environment subject, according to him. He said that when he met Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education Superintendent Cho Hee-yeon earlier this year, he was dumbfounded to discover that the office hired only seven environmental instructors for the city's entire public school system.
"Our students, devoted to entering good universities, may be good at English and math but to me they have only built this combative spirit to stamp on others to succeed in this socially deranged society," Ban said.
|In this November 2017 photo, a woman looks at the Kori Nuclear Power Site in Busan's Gijang District. Korea Times file|
On July 1, he sent letters to Education Minister Yoo Eun-hye, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun and superintendents in 17 cities and provinces nationwide about the importance of environmental education at early ages. He then began meeting each superintendent in person to make sure that his letter got through to them.
The idea of early environmental education also attracted the most supportive votes from the NCCA's panel of 500 civic experts participating in the agency's selection of 21 national projects to propose to the Moon administration to reduce carbon emissions.
"Elementary and middle school students in Italy mandatorily learn about climate change and the environment for 33 hours a year, while those in Taiwan four hours," Ban said, adding there is no such obligation in South Korea. "Seeing Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, 17, I realized that educating adolescents about the environment must be done first and foremost."
Ban also argued that South Koreans must change its excessive consumption patterns to reduce the national carbon footprint. He mentioned "Earth Overshoot Day" to demonstrate how South Koreans have been consuming commodities and foods so much that the next generations won't have anything left to use. It will be the outcome of years of an excessive ecological footprint, according to Ban.
Earth Overshoot Day, developed by U.K. think tank New Economics Foundation, is a day that is assigned to a date every year to mark when humanity's resource consumption for the year exceeds Earth's capacity to regenerate those resources.
|In July 2019, protesters in front of the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in Seoul's Jongno District demand keeping nuclear power generation in South Korea and resuming the halted construction of Shin Hanul nuclear reactors 3 and 4 in North Gyeongsang Province's Uljin County. Korea Times file|
Ban said that while Earth Overshoot Day fell on Aug. 22 this year, for South Korea ― a country Ban said is 11th in the world when it comes to consuming the world's resources on this planet ― it was April 9. It means that if all humans consumed energy and natural resources as South Koreans are doing, we would need 3.5 Earths each year.
"More important than expanding renewable energies and eco-friendly vehicles is changing our consumption patterns, as stated in Sustainable Development Goal No. 12: responsible consumption and production," Ban said, referring to one of the 17 common goals for humanity's environment and global economy agreed and propagated by the U.N. member states.
Ban cited Bill Gates' TED Talk in 2010 when the co-founder of Microsoft showed how carbon dioxide can be calculated: population multiplied by used service or commodity multiplied by energy spent in making those services or commodities multiplied by carbon emissions produced by each unit of that energy. The formula hinted how one's purchase of certain goods or services directly contributes to carbon emission.
"Climate change derives from excessive consumption," Ban said. "To accomplish net zero, it is important to reduce consumption of commodities and services on the individual level."