South Korea Embraces 2020 Emissions Cap

05 August of 2009 by

south korean flag South Korea Embraces 2020 Emissions CapTodaywe hop over the waters to talk about Korea, but with importantimplications for China’s negotiating position in Copenhagen.  Its beena busy news day in Korea, both North AND South, but it is the latter where I focus our discussions today in a post was originally published on Climate Progress.

South Korea may not beoutdoing the United States’ clean energy commitments yet, but it hasjust announced intentions to adopt a 2020 emissions cap, the firstdeveloping (non-Annex I) country to do so. Reuters explains:

The government said it would choose a targetthis year from three options: an 8 percent increase from 2005 levels by2020, unchanged from 2005, or 4 percent below 2005. Its emissionsdoubled from 1990 to 2005, the fastest growth in the OECD….  Officialssaid they marked a big commitment to head off an estimated 30 percentrise in emissions that would result if no action were taken.

One might argue if South Korea is really a developing country—it isconsidered one under the United Nations Framework Convention on ClimateChange (UNFCCC), which was adopted in 1992, but was in 1996subsequently admitted to the OECD, which is usually thought of as aclub of the rich countries.

One might also question the choice of a 2005 baseline rather than1990, which all the targets in the Kyoto Protocol are keyed to.  Thereasoning behind the choice of a 2005 baseline is obvious from thequote above, which explains that South Korea’s emissions have risensteeply in the years since 1990.  The result is that none of the threechoices will result in reductions from a 1990 level.

Nevertheless, the symbolic significance of the announcement cannotbe overstated–South Korea is the first non-Annex I country to indicatethat it will adopt quantifiable emissions targets for 2020.  While thearticle notes that South Korea’s commitment could be “voluntary,” the2020 timeframe suggests that the country may be open to abinding emissions cap in the December round of international climatetalks in Copenhagen, where a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, whichexpires in 2012, will be negotiated and likely to cover the period of2013 through 2020.

Why is South Korea doing this?

There are at least three reasons why South Korea is being proactiveon climate action.  First, there is an economic stimulus motivation. This announcement comes on the heels of a recently reported “Green NewDeal” that South Korea’s President Lee Myung-Bak has been campaigningfor. That effort will spend $85 Billion, or nearly 2 percent of Korea’sGDP, over the next five years on initiatives that will encourage energyefficiency, renewable energy including solar and wind power, carboncredit trading, hybrid cars and biofuels.   The desired outcome, according to FT,is that this spending will create 1.56 to 1.81 million new jobs, and“for South Korea to become the world’s seventh most competitive countryby 2020 in terms of energy efficiency.”

Second is energy security.  South Korea is the world’s secondlargest LNG importer, and the world’s sixth largest petroleum importer.Given the country’s heavy reliance on such fossil fiels it has alsoembraced several innovative technologies to achieve such a transition:

It also aims to increase use of hybrid cars, renewableand nuclear energy consumption, energy efficiency with light-emittingdiodes and smart grids to achieve the target, which will cost 0.3 to0.5 percent of GDP.

Third, the Reuters article mentions Korea’s fear of ‘climate tariffs’ as one reason it has embraced this policy (See here):

But the government on Tuesday pointed to the future riskof border tariffs on South Korean exports. In a statement, thegovernment said the European Union and other developed countries mightpunish some exporting nations that do not adopt tough greenhouse gasreduction targets.

South Korea, as the world’s fifth-largest automaker, isheavily dependent on exports of manufactured goods and petroleumproducts to drive its economy.

Implications for Copenhagen

South Korea’s announcement has several implications forinternational climate negotiations.  It suggests that the increasinglyartificial distinction between Annex I and non-Annex I countries may bestarting to break down.  At the very least, it points to the notionthat a purely binary categorization between the “developed” and“developing” countries is starting to evolve into a framework that candifferentiate between various degrees of development.

Just as importantly, South Korea’s plan creates a model for how moreindustrialized developing countries might commit to global climateaction—setting a pathway for a slow down in growth of emissions thateventually peaks at some future point, and then declines.

This adds pressure to the likes of Mexico, which like South Korea,is classified as a non-Annex I country under the UNFCCC, but wassubsequently admitted to the OECD in 1994.  Indeed, Reuters is separately reportingthat a senior Mexican environmental policy maker has indicated plansfor Mexico to “put a detailed offer to cut the growth of its owngreenhouse gas emissions on the negotiating table … in Copenhagen thisyear.”  Mexico has already previously announcedvoluntary goals to reduce carbon emissions by 8% by 2012 from 2002levels, and to launch a carbon emissions trading scheme by 2012, sothere is good reason to believe in Mexico’s stated intentions.

If South Korea and Mexico are the first non-Annex I countries whichdecide to play ball, which other transition economies will start tofeel the heat to follow suit?  Costa Rica has made some overtures to becoming “carbon neutral”(thought what that means and how serious they are is uncertain) by2021.  What about Singapore?  Or South Africa?  If we go down the listof relatively industrialized “developing” countries, how far down do wehave to go before we reach Brazil or China?

In addition to asking which other non-Annex I countries are“gettable” for a global deal, we should hone in on the question of howwe are going to “get” them.  To what extent can the same combination ofeconomic opportunity, energy security benefits and fear of carbontariffs be used as leverage to encourage other non-Annex I countries tocommit to emissions targets?  What about highlighting the co-benefitsto public health of reducing other harmful air pollution like SOx andNOx in addition to CO2 reduction?

It is certainly the case that developing countries would likely wantto act on each of these different drivers for climate action, but stopshort of wanting to frame those actions in terms of hard targets forquantified emissions reductions.  China, with its ambitious commitmentsto energy efficiency and renewable energy is just such a country thatsees the value in diversifying energy supply, creating new innovativeindustries and improving both the bottom line and public health throughmore efficient use of fossil energy, but is unwilling to commit toabsolute carbon emissions to solve a problem it genuinely andunderstandably sees as being caused by the West.

Perhaps an approach that quantifies the unilateral domestic greenactions of developing countries in terms of effective emissionsreductions, and that aggregates those reductions into a single figurethat serves as a virtual “cap” that can be compared to caps from AnnexI countries is one way to “get” the other non-Annex I countries onboard.  The Center for American Progress has previously described sucha concept as the “carbon cap equivalents”approach, which could be just the mechanism the world needs toaccelerate the shift away from a binary understanding ofdeveloped-versus-developing countries that is outdated and divorcedfrom the reality, and that acknowledges the far greater diversity ofdevelopment amongst the world’s nations and their correspondingcapacity to address climate change.

Such a shift does not only not repudiate the concept of “common butdifferentiated responsibilities,” but adds depth to its meaning becausewe are effectively calling for increased differentiation amongstcountries, especially in the non-Annex I block.


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