The Korea Herald


Al Gore calls on S. Korea to prioritize investments in clean energy

Former US vice president warns failure to address climate crisis would increase geopolitical tensions

By Kim So-hyun

Published : May 14, 2023 - 15:49

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Former US vice president, businessperson and environmentalist Al Gore expressed caution over South Korea’s plan to increase its generation of nuclear power to over 30 percent of its total energy creation by 2030.

“While nuclear can and should continue to play a role in South Korea, it would be a mistake to deprioritize proven and cost-effective solutions like wind and solar energy, which are not only necessary to hit our climate goals, but they allow countries like South Korea to avoid unpredictable fluctuations in the price of imported fossil fuels,” Gore said in an interview with The Korea Herald, ahead of Herald Corp.’s May 24 forum to celebrate the newspaper’s 70th anniversary.

Nuclear accounted for 27 percent of the country’s total energy mix in 2021, while renewables’ contribution was 7.5 percent. South Korea’s nuclear expansion plan comes with a cut in its target for alternative energy – from 30 percent to 21.6 percent by 2030.

“I'm supportive of keeping existing nuclear plants running, assuming it can be done safely in each case, and I would be thrilled to see a new breakthrough that allows new nuclear technologies to play an increased role. But I am not overly optimistic that this will prove possible,” said Gore, who jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 with the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for their efforts to increase public knowledge about human-caused climate change. He will give a keynote speech at the forum on "The Role of the Korea-US Alliance and Partnership in Response to the Global Crisis."

Gore also noted how nuclear energy is among the most expensive sources of power in many countries, often with cost overruns and long delays in plant construction, while the cost of producing wind and solar energy have plunged in recent years.

Whereas solar and wind power generation were less expensive than new coal and gas plants in only 1 percent of the world in 2014, they were the cheapest sources of new electricity in over two-thirds of the world in 2019, and will be cheaper in virtually all of the world in the next few years, he said.

Citing a study released by Oxford University, Gore stressed that investing in wind and solar power is “by far the fastest and cheapest way to decarbonize electricity generation.”

“A transition in which nuclear energy played a dominant role would cost tens of trillions more than a transition dominated by wind, solar, batteries, and possibly green hydrogen made with the surplus renewable electricity,” he said in the email interview.

He said he is not “anti-nuclear,” but is “pro-realism,” and would therefore encourage South Korean leaders to prioritize investments in clean energy technologies that allow the country to make the fastest cuts in emissions at the lowest cost to its citizens.

He also warned that failure to address the climate crisis with the appropriate speed and scale would increase geopolitical tensions worldwide.

“The climate crisis is already fueling inflation and threatening supply chains,” he said, mentioning how last year’s unprecedented drought damaged supply chains on waterways, particularly in Europe, and led to temporary factory closures in China.

He also mentioned the Russian invasion of Ukraine from the same perspective.

“In Ukraine, we have seen how our continued reliance on fossil fuels has empowered a petrostate to fund a protracted war of aggression. As world leaders strive to facilitate peace in Ukraine, they must not compromise on issues of democracy. They must also focus on building long-term global stability by reducing global dependence on oil, gas, and coal.”

Gore backs several environmental groups, including Climate Trace, which runs an AI-powered greenhouse gas emission tracker using satellite imagery.

“Climate TRACE harnesses data from 300 satellites, over 11,100 sensors, as well as publicly and commercially available datasets to produce an independent and highly detailed emissions inventory that covers every country in the world, and identifies the most significant individual sources of greenhouse gas emissions, from power plants to steel mills to landfills,” he said.

“Incidentally, two of the top five most-emitting power plants in the world are located in South Korea, as are two of the top five most-emitting steel plants, and three of the top seven most-emitting refineries in the world.”

At the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference that begins Nov. 30, Climate Trace will cover roughly 70 million individual sites, allowing anyone to identify all the worst emitters in their country, state, province or city, Gore said, adding that the number of South Korean sources on its inventory will also increase significantly.

With a goal to significantly raise transparency in emissions monitoring and drive real climate action, the data provided by Climate Trace will guide businesses in making decisions in favor of cleaner sources in their supply chains and help investors identify which companies in their portfolios are making progress on climate goals and which are falling behind, Gore said.

He is optimistic that further progress will be made on the Loss and Damage Fund aimed at providing financial assistance to nations most vulnerable and impacted by the effects of climate change.

“I also personally support efforts such as the one UN Secretary-General (Antonio) Guterres has proposed: a windfall tax on oil and gas profits to fund loss and damage. It is the morally right thing to do,” he said.

“Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry still holds incredible influence in the US and in governments around the world, which makes such a proposal extremely difficult to enact.”

He stressed that developed nations which contributed most to the climate crisis must play a substantial role in speeding up the transition to net zero in a just and equitable way.

“That means rapidly accelerating financing, both public and private, to developing nations – not just to respond to the impacts of the climate crisis, but to deploy renewable energy and other climate solutions that will lead to greater economic opportunity,” he said.

As the world is in the early stages of a Sustainability Revolution, with rapid cost-reduction curves for clean solar and wind electricity, batteries and electric vehicles among other dramatic efficiency improvements, companies that make the boldest, earliest commitments will have huge opportunities, Gore said.

“ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance) and sustainability are not simply boxes to be checked. Companies that pledge to adopt sustainable approaches but fail to dedicate the necessary time and resources to these efforts are doing nothing more than ‘greenwashing,’” he said.

As for the Korea-US alliance marking its 70th anniversary this year, Gore said he hopes the expanded cooperation agreed upon during the recent summit between South Korea President Yoon Suk Yeol and US President Joe Biden will create many new jobs and more prosperity by focusing on solutions to the climate crisis.