by John Power
South Korea regularly ranks among Asia’s greatest success stories. Few other countries, after all, can boast of achieving such a rapid transformation into a wealthy democracy following a conflict as devastating as the Korean War and decades of subsequent dictatorship.
But the country’s remarkable economic rise has not been without costs, not least of all for the environment. Faced with levels of poverty associated with poor African countries, successive post-war governments prioritised break-neck industrialisation with little regard for the environment. Dictatorial president Park Chung-hee, who ruled the country for most of the 1960s and 70s, captured the rationale of the era in a speech at the time: “Dark smoke arising from factories are symbols of our nation’s growth and prosperity.”
It should be no surprise, then, that the soaring economic growth achieved in the 1970s and early 80s came paired with “severe environmental degradation”, as defined by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. By the end of the 1980s, however, the official mindset had begun to change, paralleling the arrival of democracy and greater participation of civil society. In 1990, the Ministry of Environment was given Cabinet-level status. A raft of new environmental laws followed in the early part of the decade.
After long serving as an example of rapid wealth creation for poor countries, South Korea has more recently set its sights on leading a different type of development – the kind demanded in an age of anxiety about climate change.
It was in 2008 that then-President Lee Myung-bak first announced that a “low-carbon, green growth” strategy would be the guiding development philosophy of his newly elected government. There followed a raft of ambitious targets, including a 30-percent reduction in greenhouse emissions below business-as-usual levels by 2030 and an increase in the contribution of renewable energy sources to 11 percent of Korea’s total energy mix by the same year.
“The fact the president himself emphasised (that) the low-carbon, green growth policy will shape a new future for Korea gave a pretty important signal to the general public of Korea,” remarks Chung Sun-yong, director of the Center for Climate and Sustainable Development Law and Policy at Seoul International Law Academy. One tangible outcome of this drive was what Bloomberg New Energy Finance has called “the world’s most ambitious emissions trading scheme”, due to come into effect in 2015.