Note: Asia Unbound is reposting this blog today, as it was supposed to be published this week, not last week when this piece was first published.
Jill Kosch O’Donnell is an independent researcher and writer.
The global climate talks underway in Paris this week, aimed at achieving a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, represent a milestone in an evolving approach to these annual UN-led negotiations. Formerly focused on haggling over developed country targets for emissions reductions, they now emphasize action by all countries, which were supposed to submit national climate change plans ahead of time, known as “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs). This new modus operandi presents an opening for Korea to assert itself as a middle power, drawing on its dual identity as a developing country and an OECD member. But it will not be through the country’s INDC.
Korea’s INDC, which aims to cut emissions 37 percent below business-as-usual levels by 2030, has garnered criticism. Climate Action Tracker, a consortium of four research organizations analyzing all countries’ INDCs, called it “inadequate.” The INDC does not detail how Korea will reach this target. It also seems to tamp down expectations about how much Korea can really do, citing the county’s heavily industrial economy, major industries that are already energy efficient, and lower public acceptance of nuclear power post-Fukushima as limits on the country’s mitigation potential. Leading by example on domestic mitigation will be hard. So what else can Korea do?
Korea’s approach to climate change falls under a broader set of policies known as “green growth,” which considers economic growth and environmental protection as compatible and seeks new drivers of economic growth through investments in clean energy. Current dynamics have created some demand for proof that green growth actually works because developing countries are now expected to rein in emissions, but they do not want to sacrifice economic growth in the process. They are also demanding help from developed countries in financing their efforts. This is where Korea has the opportunity to lead, in at least three ways:
Rally for contributions to the Green Climate Fund. Korea is home to the new Green Climate Fund, a UN body based in Songdo. It is meant to be the primary vehicle for channeling the $100 billion per year that developed countries agreed to mobilize for climate change mitigation and adaptation projects in developing countries. GCF had raised $10.2 billion in pledges by the end of 2014; no more have been announced since then. Amid stalled-out pledges, Korea could be rallying for more financial support of the fund at a time when climate finance is the major sticking point between developed and developing countries in climate negotiations.
Promote the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI). Former President Lee Myung-bak created the GGGI to determine whether green growth actually works. The GGGI, though now an international organization and no longer wholly “Korean,” is a powerful expression of Korea’s middle power identity: it is working on the ground in developing countries on green growth plans tailored to their circumstances. It also emphasizes economic growth as a first principle. Korea should continue to promote its homegrown organization and support the institute’s expansion efforts.
Lead the debate. Korea’s successful track record as a convener on green growth and status as host of the GCF and GGGI present opportunities to lead the debate over green growth and climate finance—neither of which have settled definitions. Korea can make a sustained effort to build up Songdo as a center for knowledge development on the challenges related to the GCF’s mission, and green growth writ large, by attracting green financial and policy-oriented organizations.
Green growth, with its focus on sustainability, poverty reduction, and economic growth, encompasses far more than climate change. The good news for Korea is that some of the most important opportunities to lead are still there, and will continue to be long after the diplomats leave Paris.
For more on South Korea and green growth, please see Jill Kosch O’Donnell’s chapter in Middle-Power Korea: Contributions to the Global Agenda.