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[Weekender] Korea reeling from climate change

The Korean Peninsula is heating up at an unparalleled pace.

As the air and sea temperatures rise, pollack, cod and other staple fish are on the verge of extinction, while mackerel, anchovy and squid are becoming ubiquitous and cheaper. Apple orchards are being replaced by tangerine, banana and kiwi farms. Summer birds like white and night herons are spotted all year round. Double rice harvest, which was once possible on the southernmost island of Jeju only, is spreading to upper regions.

The average temperature of the peninsula has risen 1.5 degrees Celsius over the past 100 years, nearly twice that of the overall planet. The sea surface temperature, too, has shot up 1.11 degrees Celsius between 1968 and 2015, more than 2.5 times the global average, according to the National Institute of Fisheries Science. 


On May 3, the mercury hit 30.2 in Seoul, the highest level for the day in 85 years. An early heat wave has continued for more than 10 days, with Daegu City’s Dalseong County reaching 37.2 on June 18. Citizens of Daegu and Gwangju now call their respective hometowns by the nicknames “Daefrica” and “Gwangfrica” in a reference to Africa.

At this speed, almost the entire peninsula would turn to a subtropical climate in 2070, the Korea Meteorological Administration estimates.

The rapid warming is giving birth to flora and fauna that favor a warmer environment while scaring away the species that have long thrived in the peninsula’s diverse climate running through four seasons.

Among the hardest hit was Alaskan pollack, or “myeongtae,” one of Korea’s favorite delicacies in wintertime.

Its nationwide catch went from more than 165,000 tons in 1981 to less than 10,000 tons in 1993 then to near zero in 2008. Currently around 90 percent of pollack consumed in Korea is imported from Japan or Russia. The crunch prompted the government to funnel 24.8 billion won ($21.7 million) into a recovery project since 2014, setting a 500,000 won reward on a living adult pollack.

Pollack is not alone in vanishing from dinner tables. The yearly haul of filefish hovers around 2,000 tons now, a mere 6.1 percent of what was caught 30 years ago. Cod faces a similar fate.

The shifting biome may result in a 20 percent fall in fisheries production in the country’s near sea by 2050, causing financial losses of up to 4 trillion won each year, the Korea Maritime Institute projects.

Meanwhile, concerns are growing over higher dangers of floods, typhoons and other natural disasters due to the stretched-out summer and increasing rainfall. The peninsula’s annual precipitation has increased by more 200 millimeters and the summer by up to 17 days depending on the region over the last three decades, according to the National Institute of Meteorological Sciences.

Last year, North Korea suffered from what state media called its worst flood disaster since World War II, which the UN said left at least 528 killed or missing and another 107,000 homeless.

The warming climate is also creating breeding grounds for diseases and insect pests, as well as alien species that disrupt the ecosystem. Data by the Rural Development Administration shows that the areas affected by California red scale, planthoppers and other such species have expanded more than five-fold from about 4,100 hectares in 2013 to almost 22,000 hectares in 2016.

The phenomenon is changing not only Koreans’ dinner tables, wardrobes and lifestyle, but also the industry dynamics. While fashion houses reduce down parkas and between-seasons clothes like trench coats in their product line-ups, home electronics makers boost production of air conditioners, dehumidifiers and air purifiers.

To cope with the sweeping impact, the central and local governments have been carrying out various programs including a national carbon trading scheme.

The nation aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 37 percent, or 315 million metric tons, by 2030 based on business-as-usual levels. It enacted an act on low carbon and green growth in 2010, introduced its voluntary reduction target during a UN climate conference in Paris in December 2015, and set specific reduction thresholds for energy-intensive sectors in the mid and long terms last December.

Last week, President Moon Jae-in pledged to phase out nuclear energy and replace it with renewable resources as the country shuts down the Kori No. 1 reactor which reached the end of its 40-year lifespan, the first nuclear plant to be closed permanently here. Currently 25 reactors supply about a third of the country’s total electricity.

The government deems a cap-and-trade system to be key to meeting the 2030 goal, which it says could expedite industry innovation and environmentally friendly investment while paving the way for a future integration into a global carbon market.

Industry resistance persists, however, as well as policy fragmentation among related agencies that pursue different goals.

The green growth vision, trumpeted by the former Lee Myung-bak administration, has been put on the back burner after his successor Park Geun-hye took office. Under Moon, the climate change policy has again been transferred to the Finance Ministry from the Environment Ministry, while the energy and land ministries taking over power generation and other supplementary areas.

“I take a positive view of the transfer because the Finance Ministry has substantial say with its financial management functions and would be able to work more efficiently with other agencies,” said Kim Hye-jun, a senior fellow at the Korea Research Institute on Climate Change in Seoul.

“Though the country is ahead of others in initiating the emissions trading system, it is virtually a sanction so there will need to be greater incentives such as for green cars, eco-friendly products and energy efficiency to encourage further public participation.”

Song Ji-yoon, a researcher at the Korea Environment Institute’s Adaptation Center for Climate Change, stressed the need for the government to build climate change-related facilities.

“In the long term, it could be imperative to secure infrastructure to help cope with climate change. For example, we may paint buildings with different colors to lower the temperature and develop road pavement technologies,” she told The Korea Herald.

Choi Hyeon-jung, who works on climate change and sustainable development at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said the new government would have to set up a control tower to steer the policy amid conflicting interests among the involved agencies.

“Even if the government has a comprehensive goal to improve sustainability, it would be impossible to implement the policy without tackling the systematic inertia and the barriers between the ministries that pursue their different own interests,” she said in a report released Friday.

“As Moon has also pledged a related organizational overhaul, the policy should be set in motion through an integrated control tower and this must be institutionalized.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (