[Herald Interview] U.N. agency warns of weakened climate policy

By Shin Hyon-hee
  • Published : Aug 3, 2014 - 20:58
  • Updated : Aug 3, 2014 - 20:58
This is the last installment in an 11-part series of interviews with chiefs of United Nations offices in Korea. ― Ed.

Amid concerns over its dwindling commitment to climate initiatives, South Korea should muster the political will to follow through on its international pledges to curb emissions and the green growth initiative, the chief of the U.N. Office for Sustainable Development said.

Seoul has taken credit for promoting “green growth” as a global agenda. In 2009, the country vowed a voluntarily cut in its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent from projected levels by 2020 and funnel billions of dollars into related research and programs, including a carbon trading system. Korea is now home to such international agencies as the Green Climate Fund and the Global Green Growth Institute.

Yoon Jong-soo, however, is worried that the much-touted policy is losing momentum compared to the global trend, with many of ambitious initiatives on the brink of losing steam.

“The environment is a field in which Korea can play a leading role, but to do so it should continue setting examples as it has done over the past few years,” the former vice environment minister said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald. 
Yoon Jong-soo, head of the U.N. Office for Sustainable Development (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

“The efforts are underway in principle, but have been clearly weakened. Korea plays a significant role in coordinating the international community, but the current trend appears to demonstrate a lack of political will.”

Yoon’s remarks reflect growing criticism that the Park Geun-hye administration is backpedaling on the green growth vision, deemed a brainchild of its predecessor.

A presidential panel has been scaled down to a support group within the Prime Minister’s Office. With emissions showing no signs of abating, the 2020 goal is in jeopardy. And the envisioned cap-and-trade scheme faces a delay as corporate opposition persists.

“A project such as an emissions trading system is a promise to the international community and came with a comprehensive road map involving mid-term targets and detailed plans by sector,” he said.

“Postponing it for a short-term, small gain, not just easing tension regarding the details, will give the wrong signal to businesses, make it impossible for us to meet the target and push down national prestige and credibility.”

Located in Songdo, Incheon, the UNOSD was launched in 2011 to help developing countries beef up their capacity through training, policy advice, forums and other means. It is managed by the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs and supported by the Seoul government, Incheon City and Yonsei University.

Yoon joined the organization early last year, bringing more than 20 years of administrative experience and academic expertise in various environmental issues. While at the Environment Ministry, he assumed key posts including assistant minister for environmental policy; director general for water supply and sewage, waste circulation, and air and climate change; and environmental counselor at the permanent mission to the U.N. in New York. 

With a new climate treaty in progress to replace the Kyoto Protocol, Seoul should focus on bridging the advanced and developing worlds to narrow their differences and boost all members’ contributions, he said.

“After all countries table their contributions, we will see if they can together tackle the problems facing the world. If there is a gap, there should be a process to gather the political will,” Yoon said.

“At the end of the day, (the accord) should be more concrete about means of implementation, whether through finance, technology or capacity development. … Devising business models are crucial to inducing private investment because public funds will not suffice.”

Next year will be pivotal as another new international framework will come to light on another key dimension of sustainable growth ― development.

At the so-called Rio+20 conference in Brazil in 2012, 193 member countries agreed to develop a set of sustainable development goals for 2030 to build on the Millennium Development Goals and converge with the post-2015 development agenda. They are now working on a draft to be submitted to the General Assembly later this year.

“Despite progress in some of the issues, the MDGs in a way paid less attention to emerging issues such as climate, water, sustainable consumption and production, energy and urbanization,” Yoon added.

“Though poverty reduction is inevitably the No. 1 unresolved priority in the U.N. system under which developing countries hold a majority, the general consensus appears that climate change will be another future driver for SDGs.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (