The Korea Herald


‘Energy supply scheme change key to curbing climate change’

Renowned environmentalist warns against state’s pro-fossil fuel energy plan

By 이현정

Published : Feb. 1, 2016 - 09:51

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It is crucial for Korea to change its energy supply scheme in order to reach the target of the Paris Agreement on climate change, according to a renowned environmental activist.

“The strongest message of the Paris deal is that the fossil fuel generation has ended. Just as the Stone Age didn’t end just because there were no more stones, global warming is telling us that we can no longer use fossil fuels but have to pursue sustainability,” Ahn Byung-ok, head of the Institute for Climate Change Action said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

The historic agreement reached at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris on Dec. 12 aims for the 195 participating nations to restrain worldwide temperature rise.

Ahn Byung-ok (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald) Ahn Byung-ok (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Ahn, who has dedicated decades of his life to raising awareness on various environmental problems, emphasized that the Paris Agreement was a historic moment despite its non-binding framework. 

“First of all, it removed the division between developing and developed countries over the emissions obligations. Secondly, this is the first ever universal agreement that brought over 190 countries together,” he said.

“This was only possible because it was a bottom-up agreement. Although this often leads to a nonbinding framework, it’s meaningful that all agreed to make a grand new beginning toward the same goal.”

After joining the campaign against air pollution in 1984, Ahn has expanded his environmental efforts to various issues such as water pollution, noise problems around airports, health issues near nuclear power plants and climate change. He established the ICCA in 2009 with two other experts to better stimulate the climate change move nationwide.

With Korea having pledged an ambitious goal in the Paris Agreement, the 53-year-old expert warned that the Seoul government will face challenges unless it withdraws “contradictory” energy supply schemes and reduces its dependence on fossil fuels.

In the agreement, Seoul pledged to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 37 percent from the expected business-as-usual level by 2030. The largest target comprises actual mitigations of 25.7 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and the purchase of global carbon credits equivalent to 11.3 percent, leading to a restriction of emissions to 536 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

“The government is attempting to build more coal-fired power plants. Building one coal-fired power plant requires about seven years, and one plant can run for up to 40 years. During this time, other countries will already be free from fossil fuels,” Ahn added.

While the country is running 53 coal-fired power stations with a generation capacity of 26,273 megawatts and 12 more are being built, it pledged last year to construct eight more of them by 2029, citing the growing demand for electricity. This was four fewer plants than initially announced in the previous plan as it faced fierce public opposition over constructing coal-fired power plants. As an alternative, the government vowed to build two more nuclear power plants.

The government forecast that power demand would rise by an average of 2.2 percent a year by 2029, although environmentalists argued that estimates are exaggerated.

The construction of eight more coal-fired power plants with a total generation capacity of 7 gigawatts is expected to cause about 46 million tons of emissions a year, which will make up 9 percent of the expected amount of emissions of 2020, civic groups have argued.

Having limited options for natural energy sources, the government has mainly relied on coal-fired power plants, citing the low cost and simple operation process. Korea is the world’s fourth-largest importer of coal.

According to the International Energy Agency’s report last year, fossil fuels in Korea accounted for about 66 percent of Korea’s energy supply in 2014.

Natural resources made up 16 percent, followed by nuclear energy with 15 percent. Renewable energy only took up 1.1 percent.

Of renewable energy, bio fuels and waste energy accounted for about 73 percent, followed by hydro energy at 12 percent and solar power with 7.4 percent.

On why Korea has such a low renewable energy share, Ahn pointed out the excessive use of electricity triggered mainly by the low electricity charges.

“Because the energy demand is so high, the renewable energy share does not rise. The first thing that the government must do is to reduce the unnecessary demand through various measures such as pursuing energy-efficient construction and raising the electricity tariffs. This will be as effective as investing in developing renewable energy,” he said.

As of 2013, Korea recorded the lowest electricity charges in the OCED, with 106.3 won ($0.09) per kilowatt hour, which is only 41 percent of the cost of electricity in Japan and 53 percent of that of the U.K.

“To minimize the burden on both households and industry, the government should gradually raise the rate with a long-term electricity rate increase plan provided in advance.”

Ultimately, the government should no longer pursue quantitative economic growth but qualitative growth, the expert added.

“As the government has consistently prioritized quantitative growth, other important values were put behind. Of course, saving the environment without economic growth is unrealistic,” he said.

“The important question is how to have a different kind of growth that would help everyone stay happy. Once people are happy with a safe social security net, they get to realize the value of nature.”

By Lee Hyun-jeong (