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[Herald Interview] ‘Shift to renewables takes political will’

In Korea, spring always comes with an unwelcome guest -- fine dust -- and it has become a norm to check the fine dust level every morning, put on a mask and bear with it.

But that does not have be a norm. South Korean people hold the key to challenging the status quo by pressuring the government and businesses, said Marco Lambertini, director general of World Wide Fund for Nature. 

Marco Lambertini, director general of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)
Marco Lambertini, director general of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)

“Negative changes can be reversed. We decide the future that we want. When the public awareness turns into behavior, it leads the government to take actions,” he told The Korea Herald during an interview. “People power is the top priority.”

He says that the country must begin the fight from within by shifting toward renewable energy before placing blame on neighboring countries like China for air pollution.

“Pollution in particular has no boundaries. The bottom line is everybody should play their part. If you don’t take action because your neighbor is not taking action, we will never win,” he said.

South Korea, the world’s seventh-largest greenhouse gas emitters, relies heavily on coal-fired power plants and nuclear reactors, generating about 70 percent of electricity combined as of 2016. Renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, accounts for just 7 percent of the country’s electricity production. About 95 percent of energy in the country is imported from other countries. 

The Moon Jae-in administration laid out a road map to raise the proportion of renewables up to 20 percent by 2030 to phase out coal and nuclear energy.

But the move met strong opposition as some fear that renewable energy alone cannot meet Korea’s demands for electricity and will drive up the costs of electricity production.

It is rather a matter of political will, and that the price of renewable energy could be pushed down through market competition, if the government sends a signal that it is serious about changing the nation’s energy portfolio.

“The more we invest in renewable energy, the less the costs will get,” he said, suggesting the government take away subsidies for coal power plants and offer more incentives to renewable energy producers. 

Earth Hour 2017 campaign aimed at encouraging people to turn off lights for an hour once a year. (WWF)
Earth Hour 2017 campaign aimed at encouraging people to turn off lights for an hour once a year. (WWF)

The whole economic system has been built around fossil fuels, and businesses got themselves used to the current energy structure, which makes them fight against a shift toward renewable energy, he pointed out.

“Moving the society from the old platform to a competitive new platform, is expensive and takes time, but it is also a business opportunity,” he said, stressing it is a “clean growth engine” to create room for investment, jobs and drive prosperity for humanity in the decades to come.

The WWF is the world’s largest institution committed to conserving nature, with offices in 100 countries. The organization aims to curb climate change, biodiversity loss, environmental pollution and unsustainable use of the planet’s natural resources. Its Korean office was launched in 2014.

Lambertini, who joined WWF International in 2014 and has been campaigning for environmental protection for 35 years, said that he is hopeful that the global fight against climate change will eventually win.

“I felt I was fighting everyone. The government didn’t listen, companies didn’t care and people were not engaged. In my time, climate change didn’t even exist as a word,” he said. “Today, it is completely different. It is not anymore fighting against something. It is more like supporting positive changes.”

“I am definitely hopeful, but I am also conscious that there is only limited time available to fix some of these problems,” he said. “The world in 10 years will depend on what we do today.”