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South Korea Embraces EU-Model Inexperienced Deal For COVID-19 Restoration

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA – APRIL 15: A South Korean voter casts her vote in a polling station during the … [+] coronavirus outbreak on April 15, 2020.

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South Korea’s Democratic party has won a landslide victory in elections that took place yesterday, achieving a strong mandate for a European-style Green New Deal, making it the nation first in east Asia to enact a pledge to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Despite a still-raging coronavirus outbreak, the parliamentary elections saw the country’s largest turnout in almost 30 years, giving incumbent President Moon Jae-in’s party 180 of the National Assembly’s 300 seats—an increase of 60 seats. The government’s proactive response to coronavirus is thought to have contributed greatly to the victory: polls suggest more than 70% of voters have a positive view of the government’s handling of the outbreak.

With strong public backing, the government must now set about enacting its Green New Deal, published in March as part of its manifesto. President Moon Jae-in has explicitly referred to the European Commission’s European Green Deal as instrumental in the formulation of the Korean plan, and bilateral meetings between South Korea and EU officials have enabled the two regions to share policy ideas and form cooperation projects. The deal includes a carbon tax, a requirement to end investment in coal, and a focus on investment in renewable energy sources, as well as a hydrogen strategy.

These are similar strategies included in the European deal, which was finalized last year, and to which European leaders have repeatedly stressed their commitment. EU ministers last week said that despite the ongoing pandemic that has seen huge loss of life in some of Europe’s largest countries, the bloc would continue with the planand that in fact the framework of the plan would underpin coronavirus stimulus measures.

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The task that now lies ahead for South Korean government is a huge one. With its large, industrialized and highly developed economy, South Korea is the seventh most polluting nation in terms of CO2 emissions. The country’s intended nationally determined contribution, published in 2016 in accordance with the Paris Agreement, pledged to cut emissions by 37% by 2030—an ambition that has been described as “highly insufficient” by Climate Action Tracker. According to Greenpeace, the country is one of the largest investors in coal worldwide, and the country’s enormous manufacturing sector—producing everything electronics and cars to shipbuilding and steelwill make energy efficiency targets hard to achieve.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in during a virtual summit on March 26, 2020. Moon’s administration … [+] has been praised for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

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On the other hand, Moon and his party enter their new term with huge political momentum. The government has dealt with the threat of coronavirus adroitly: its handling of the outbreak is considered world-leading, with an early emphasis on widespread testing and contact tracing that has led to just over 10,000 cases and fewer than 250 deaths at the time of writing, while other large countries are seeing death tolls in the tens of thousands. Few draconian rules have been enforced, and while social distancing measures are still in place, life across the country has returned to something approaching normal. The fruits of this capable response are that the South Korean economy could emerge from the pandemic relatively unscathed, meaning the country is well-placed to enact bold new plans.

Nevertheless, there is concern in the country that politicians aren’t taking the climate crisis as seriously as they should. Just last month, a group of 30 young activists took the government to court, arguing that inadequate climate policies amounted to a violation of their constitutional rights under South Korean law.

South Korean students protesting against inaction on climate change, November 29, 2019.

South Korean students hold placards during a rally supporting a global strike by students against … [+] climate change on November 29, 2019.

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In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that when the Democratic party released its Green New Deal at the end of March, environmental groups gave it a cautious greeting. Greenpeace Seoul said the manifesto was welcome—even if it had been a long time coming—but noted that no mention was made in the document of phasing out internal combustion engine vehicles, and called for “a clear roadmap, timeline, and policies to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.”

Green Environment Youth Korea (GEYK) was likewise critical of the manifesto, saying it was short on detail. “In order for the party to convince the voters of their commitment to this issue, it [the Democratic party] needs to release a further plan that illustrates several realistic yet innovative plans for the 2050 net-zero goal,” the group said.

The South Korean public, for their part, take climate change very seriously. A Pew Research Center study published last year found that 86% of South Koreans viewed climate change as the foremost global threat, far ahead of terrorism or even North Korea’s nuclear program. The same study found that only 59% of Americans viewed climate change as the most pressing global threat.

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