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19 March 2020

Ruling party goes to South Korean polls, waving net zero at voters

A story emerged this week that the incumbent South Korean Democratic Party is running on a promise to create a Green New deal, and get the east Asian country to net zero emissions by 2050. If that happened, it would certainly be the first major Asian country to make such a promise, and give plenty of hope that others locally might follow suit.

But that hope belies a complex political system, finely balanced between democrats and conservatives, with a bundle of other fringe parties thrown in and almost certainly coalition politics. The fact that such a promise has only just emerged and with the election is scheduled for April 15, that makes it a late manifesto promise.

The reason is that incumbent South Korean President Moon Jae-in, has become unpopular during the Corona Virus, because he sent a few million masks to Beijing, instead of keeping them all for his voters. The other parties have promptly tried to impeach him, having impeached the last President, they seem to have a taste for it, unlike the US.

So the net zero 2050 promise is about putting the party back on track among disgruntled voters, and it’s not at all certain that this party will return to power – in fact globally most political parties which have backed extreme climate change policies have managed to end up dumped out of office – especially relevant is Australia. Hence the fear among US Democrats that they end up running against Donald Trump with Bernie Sanders, universally referred to as a “socialist” who wants to spend trillions on a Green New deal.

Politically these countries come at the problem of electricity from wildly different angles – with both Australia and the US addicted to fossil fuels because they provide instant energy security – no requirement for raw material imports – while South Korea imports most of its fuel, whether that is gas or coal or nuclear fuel – of course any country in that situation would normally push for getting the fuel for free – using sunshine and wind for the most part, and cutting out import costs.

In fact the ruling party may have turned around after its initially poor reaction to the Corona Virus, and may not need to emphasize the net zero policy in the run up to the vote in April. It has come back from not having enough masks for everyone to implementing the most tests for Corona virus per million people of any country in the world, at 5,200 per million and has managed to drive down new cases each day to just 74 yesterday, from a high of over 900 a few weeks back.

If the plan goes ahead the ruling Democratic Party may lose votes, especially among individuals who work in the industries which are so very power hungry, making cars, ships and steel – and which will require some cost breakthroughs in areas like industrial hydrogen, in order to make good on it keeping costs down as a green deal emerges.

Built into the party’s manifesto are moves such as starting a carbon tax, a ban on coal financing and the usual ramping of investments in renewable energy, wind being the most urgent, as the country only has a mere 3 GW of wind energy, surrounded as it is with deep water which will make best use of floating wind platforms once developed. South Korea has been a traditional investor in solar, and has more capacity at 10.7 GW in mostly land based, but increasingly with floating solar. The two part 2.1 GW Saemangeum floating solar park, along with supporting land based solar nearby on reclaimed land, and a wind farm, is already booked to deliver huge renewables capacity in 2022 and again in 2025.

Even so, net zero may be targeted by political rivals as a strategy which penalizes the traditional economic strengths of South Korea on large engineering projects.

The chances are that anyway, even if President Moon Jae-in can regain power for his party, it is likely to be through a minority government and such a policy will rely on the parties which form a coalition to put it into power. There are at least two local parties which have already expressed their interest in backing such a Green New Deal Act so it may come to pass, as long as that does not scare voters away from all of these parties.

It has to be remembered that previous South Korean governments have had huge plans for renewables, but they have never ended up in legislation and the country has been left supporting imported fossil fuels.