Climate Change in South Korea: Floods, Heat and Looking Away

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Climate Change in South Korea: Floods, Heat and Looking Away

Photo Yeongsik Im / Shutterstock.com

South Korea's strategy to address climate change's impacts is reactive, not proactive, while its newly adopted policies and upcoming plans continue to undermine renewables.

21 August 2023 – by Viktor Tachev   Comments (0)

Climate change wreaks havoc worldwide, and South Korea is not excluded. Climate change in South Korea and its impacts are speeding up. Torrential rains, floods and heat waves have resulted in casualties and damaged infrastructure. This is the latest reminder that no country will be unaffected by the climate crisis, no matter how advanced it is. Furthermore, this is a situation that humanity has imposed upon itself through burning fossil fuels. And South Korea isn’t without blame.

The Global Impacts of Climate Change in 2023

Despite June 2023 being hailed as the hottest June in history, July broke the record for the hottest month in “120,000 years”. Scientists say temperatures were 1.5°C above the average for July before industrialisation. As a result, this year is now on track towards becoming the hottest on record.

Around 81% of the population, or 6.5 billion people, experienced climate change-attributed heat in July.

The heat wave broke records all over Asia, including Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. China reached an all-time-high national temperature of 52.2°C. There is now a real risk for similar heat waves to occur once every five years in China. According to estimates, heat waves will last 1,563% longer without urgent action. 

Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Extreme Weather Events

According to a study by World Weather Attribution’s group of scientists, the reason for the anomalies is human-induced climate change – more specifically, the continuous burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas to meet the energy demand and the increase in global greenhouse gas emissions. Without phasing fossil fuels out, scientists warn that heat waves and other adverse impacts like tropical cyclones will become more frequent and intense. The world should adopt energy efficiency and climate change adaptation measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stop rising temperatures.

Impacts of Climate Change in South Korea 2023

In South Korea, torrential rains and the following floods killed at least 46 people this summer in 2023. The heavy rainfall submerged many low-lying areas and destroyed connecting road infrastructure. Landslides damaged hundreds of houses, with 300 square km of farmland affected and 700,000 livestock killed. Over 10,000 people were evacuated, while power cuts left over 28,000 households without electricity. 

In 2023, South Korea experienced one of its most intense summer monsoon seasons on record. Between 16% and 30% of the rain typically seen in an entire year fell in just a single day.

After July’s rains and floods, August brought South Korea record-high temperatures. Due to temperatures of over 38°C, officials raised the heat alert to the highest level. Since May, extreme heat has killed at least 23 people. This is three times more than last year’s summer death toll. 

This is a major concern for South Korea and its rapidly ageing population, as older adults are the most vulnerable to heat stress. Furthermore, a warming atmosphere makes extreme rainfall more likely. 

According to the G20 Climate Risk Atlas, South Korea risks losing USD 60 billion due to rising sea levels. Meanwhile, coastal erosion and extreme weather will cause it to lose around 3.73% of its GDP by 2050.

Tackling Climate Change: What Is South Korea’s Plan?

After admitting he had never seen something like this year’s rains and floods, President Yoon Suk-yeol promised to “completely overhaul” how the country responds to such extreme weather events.

The government has announced introducing an updated disaster response system to reduce administrative bottlenecks in disaster prevention and recovery. It will also increase state spending on disaster prevention and response and will improve infrastructure design, traffic control and evacuation measures in cases of emergency. 

South Korea’s Carbon Emissions

Although these are highly important and necessary actions, countries need to address the fundamental root of the problem: carbon emissions.

“We have to acknowledge that adaptation is necessary, but we also need to be aware that adaptation activity alone cannot overtake the speed of global warming,” says Taehan Kim, principal researcher from the Korea Sustainability Investing Forum. “We need to reduce GHG emissions now to protect our future,” he adds.

South Korea is among the world’s top 10 emitters, with per capita emissions 1.77 times the G20 average. It is also among the leading public financiers of fossil fuel projects globally.

The country also has one of the lowest wind and solar power shares in the energy mix in the G20. According to Ember Climate, wind and solar accounted for just 5.4% of South Korea’s electricity production in 2022 – way below the global average of 12%. 

South Korea's Per Capita Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Source: Climate Transparency
South Korea’s Per Capita Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Source: Climate Transparency

A Climate Laggard

Climate Action Tracker rates South Korea’s current climate targets and policies as “highly insufficient”.

The new government quickly dismissed the previous target of 100% renewables, arguing that it was “too expensive”. The country’s 10th Basic Energy Plan still has coal and gas accounting for around 40% and 24% of electricity generation come 2030 and 2036, respectively. This is despite South Korea being a signatory of the Global Coal to Clean Power Transition, the Global Methane Pledge and the Powering Past Coal Alliance. Furthermore, the country’s green taxonomy officially considers gas a green fuel.

In March 2023, the government also lowered its 2030 industrial sector GHG emission reduction targets from 14.5% to 11.4%. It also changed how it plans to reduce emissions, including a shift towards carbon capture technology and international offsets.

South Korea Climate Targets, Source: Climate Action Tracker
South Korea Climate Targets, Source: Climate Action Tracker

Overall, South Korea is ranked 60th in the Climate Change Performance Index, being cited as a “very low performer”. It receives very low ratings across the GHG emissions, renewable energy and energy use categories and a low rating in climate policy.

These actions have consequences. While temperatures in the Korean Peninsula have risen by 1.5°C in the past century, on a high carbon pathway, average temperatures across the Korean Peninsula could increase by an extra 2.5°C by 2050.

Nuclear Power In the Spotlight

President Yoon’s government scrapped the previous government’s plans to phase out nuclear power. In fact, the current leadership pledged to expand it to more than 30% of the energy mix. Today, nuclear power is responsible for 28% of the generated electricity in South Korea, far above the global average of 9.2%. 

Meanwhile, the government and leading Korean businesses, like Samsung, Hyundai and SK, are also considering adopting the Carbon Free 100 (CF100) system.

CF100 mandates that carbon-free sources, including nuclear power, hydrogen and more, produce all electricity. South Korean officials consider it more realistic than RE100, a global initiative for producing 100% of the electricity from renewable energy sources.

Instead of complementing the RE100, CF100 is intended to substitute it. This will be a major blow for green-oriented Korean corporations since the local market is already one of the most challenging when it comes to accessing renewables. 

According to Climate Action Tracker, the push towards nuclear power comes at the expense of renewables. Similar concerns are also expressed by Sejong Youn, director of Plan 1.5

“The administration has actually decreased the renewables target for 2030 and is presenting nuclear as the alternative, but this approach is highly unlikely to result in any meaningful reduction on GHG in the next decade and will end up wasting a lot of time, time that we cannot afford to lose at this point,” he warns.

Existing nuclear power has so far played a crucial role in helping the world reduce emissions. However, building new capacity raises multiple concerns.  

Project Constraints

Building a nuclear power plant takes over seven years on average. In comparison, rooftop solar and small commercial utility-scale solar plants can be up and running in just six months. And when racing against the clock to minimise climate change’s impacts, the timing is crucial.

“Aside from political preferences and other environmental problems, nuclear power, which normally takes more than ten years from planning to power generation, cannot be an option just because it won’t contribute to GHG emissions reduction in the most critical period in tackling climate change,” warns Mr. Kim from the Korea Sustainability Investing Forum.

Massive Investment Needs

According to experts, few, if any, nuclear power reactors have been built without significant government support. Furthermore, most projects often end up far exceeding the budget, as Western Europe’s experience shows. 

And considering that the current leadership dismissed the 100% clean energy target on the grounds of being “too expensive”, moving ahead with nuclear power doesn’t make sense.

Not a Favoured Power Source

While over 200 countries use renewables, just 31 operate nuclear power plants. Meanwhile, the number of countries currently building more than two new reactors is just six. 

According to experts, if South Korea pursues its 30% nuclear power share by 2050, it will have to extend the lives of its old reactors while building at least 24 new ones. Meanwhile, the country has the highest nuclear density globally.

Safety and Other Concerns

The current global landscape has surfaced nuclear plants’ safety and public health risks.

The situation of South Korea’s neighbour, Japan, is a reminder of the potential issues surrounding nuclear power. The controversial decision to dump treated wastewater into the ocean has drawn massive criticism from local communities, environmental groupsscientists and neighbouring countries like China. 

In South Korea, the news about the Fukushima wastewater release has already disturbed some communities and wreaked havoc on the prospects for fishing-dependent industries. According to a poll, 80% of South Koreans are worried about the contaminated water release. After mass protests, the Korean government passed a resolution opposing the water release. 

Another potential downside is that nuclear energy risks increasing South Korea’s fuel import dependence. With an overall energy independence of just 19.8%, the country completely relies on imports to fuel its nuclear power plants. 

From Band-Aid Fixes to Working Solutions

South Korean President Yoon warned that such extreme weather events would become “commonplace”. He then urged South Koreans to “accept climate change is happening and deal with it”.

However, the government must take action against climate change in South Korea. The country’s leadership was accused of paying “lip service” to the problem while at the same time ignoring the solutions that would help resolve it.

“Recent extreme weather events demonstrate the dire need for climate adaptation efforts. However, we need to understand climate adaptation would mean little if we fail to enhance our mitigation efforts. And this is where the current government really is falling behind,” says Sejong Youn. 

To align with the Paris Agreement, South Korea needs to phase out coal by 2030 and gas from the power sector shortly after. Nuclear energy is too costly and time-consuming and also carries safety risks. Hydrogen is either a fossil fuel in disguise or an unproven and expensive fuel. Gas and ammonia co-firing schemes extend the lives of fossil fuels.

Prioritising CF100 instead of RE100 will mean that the country is likely to miss significant employment and economic opportunities. It will also risk lagging in the global transition, potentially impacting its competitiveness and international reputation. 

“The government still does not understand expanding renewables and replacing fossil energy sources should be the top priority,” concludes Mr Youn.

As this summer has shown, a country of South Korea’s stature shouldn’t need any more motivation to take action – especially when the cost of inaction is so high.

by Viktor Tachev

Viktor has years of experience in financial markets and energy finance, working as a marketing consultant and content creator for leading institutions, NGOs, and tech startups. He is a regular contributor to knowledge hubs and magazines, tackling the latest trends in sustainability and green energy.

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