The Korea Herald, December 7, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: In South Korea, the Ministry of Environment has adopted and tried to implement four basic environmental principles -- the precautionary principle, the receptor-centered approach, prioritizing protection of the vulnerable and sensitive groups, and guaranteeing the right to know through citizen participation and information sharing.]

By Yun Sun-jin

This is the 24th installment in a 30-part special report focusing on social changes in Korea since the civil uprising in June 1987, a watershed in contemporary Korean history. A select group of Korean sociology professors will contribute essays analyzing the diverse aspects of societal transformation during the past two decades. -- Ed.

Korea has accomplished a very compressed form of economic growth over the last 35 years. But rapid economic growth has been accompanied by rapid ecological dilapidation and environmental pollution. The environment was sacrificed to pursue more economic growth through industrialization. However, Korean people's recognition of the values of the environment was revitalized with the witness and experience of several environmental disasters including the phenol accident in the Nakdong River in 1991.

Economic growth has made people pay more attention to aspects of quality of life which is mostly dependent upon the quality of the surrounding environment. Since democratization in 1987, environmental movements have also grown as rapidly as environmental destruction and have actively engaged in environmental recovery and protection.

In the process, the Ministry of Environment has been established and expanded, through which the quality of the Korean environment has gradually improved. Environmental legislations by the ministry numbered 45 as of October 2007. Even though Korea has delivered progress in environmental performance, more complicated challenges still lie ahead. In this article, Korea's progress will be explored first and its challenges will be examined later.

Progress in environmental management

Since the financial crisis in 1997, Korea has achieved the most rapid economic growth among countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, with annual growth rate of 6 percent. The number of cars has also sharply increased by 57.4 percent, from 10.1 million cars in 1997 to 15.9 million in 2006. Nevertheless, it has accomplished little progress in the fields of air, water and waste management as pointed out in the OECD environmental performance review report in 2006.

Several environmental pressures have been decoupled from growth in gross domestic product. Sulphur oxide (SOx) emissions are remarkably decoupled with economic growth. Growth in emissions of carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides (NOx), small particles (PM10), lead, and hydrocarbons (VOCs) are all slightly decoupled. Actually, Korea's SOx and NOx emissions per unit of GDP are below the OECD average.

Concerning waste management, Korea has accomplished massive progress. Although municipal waste generation has increased 6 percent since the mid-1990s, the growth rate is lower than GDP growth and per capita municipal waste generation in 2003 -- which stands at 390 kg, about the level of the mid-1990s -- is below the OECD average. All this has been achieved through Korea's active recycling policy, volume-based waste fees and, more broadly, its emphasis on the 3R (Reduce, Recycle, Reuse) strategy. The recycling rate of Korea is the highest among OECD countries. Sanitary landfills have been constructed and operated, while energy recovery has been achieved via landfill gas capture and combustion.

In the case of water quality management, Korea has made partial progress. Water quality of the four main water supply reservoirs improved beyond the target of the Green Vision 21 in 2005. Korea adopted a river-basin management approach for its four major rivers for a more integrated quality and quantity management, away from the past supply-dominated approach. In 2007, Korea began implementing a "total pollution load management" system to manage point-source pollution discharge.

There is some progress in protection of nature and biodiversity. The government has strengthened its legal, strategic and planning framework including environmental impact assessment and the prior environmental review system. To integrate environmental concerns into land-use planning, the principle "plan first, develop later" was adopted. Some policy instruments such as an ecosystem preservation fee on large-scale developers and the system of "nature sabbatical periods" for national parks were adopted.

The Ministry of Environment has adopted and tried to implement four basic environmental principles -- the precautionary principle, the receptor-centered approach, prioritizing protection of the vulnerable and sensitive groups, and guaranteeing the right to know through citizen participation and information sharing. Public-private partnership has been established, through which business and environmental non-governmental organizations have contributed to addressing and dealing with environmental issues. Environmental expenditure in Korea has increased and has now exceeded 2 percent of GDP.

More challenges lie ahead

Despite the progress in environmental management, however, more serious challenges lie ahead. The problems require more than technological treatment -- social restructuring and changes in lifestyle, based on self-reflection on the modern industrialization process and the relationship between nature and society. Korea still has problems in managing PM10, ozone, NOx, and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The air quality in Seoul turned out to be the worst among capitals of OECD countries last year. Concentration levels of PM10 and nitrogen dioxide, and increasing frequency of high ozone concentrations are problematic in the Seoul megalopolis. The concentration levels of PM10 in the Seoul megalopolis approximately satisfy Korean environmental standards (70 micrograms per cubic meter) but are much higher than the standards of the World Health Organization (40 micrograms per cubic meter). Increasing numbers of cars and high population density have led to a deterioration of air quality despite improved fuel quality and engine technology. In the Seoul megalopolis, which accounts for 10.8 percent of national territory, 48 percent of the entire population live, producing 53 percent of GDP and consuming 21 percent of total primary energy. For this reason, the Korean government has implemented comprehensive policy instruments focusing on the Seoul megalopolis, with 91.2 percent (208.1 billion out of 228.0 billion won or $226 million out of $247 million) of the total budget for air quality management allocated to the area. Air pollution of the Seoul megalopolis is related to city congestion resulting from a Seoul-concentrated national land use problem, not just technological issues. Recently, increasing amounts of yellow dust blown over from China have aggravated air quality in the Seoul megalopolis. Long-range trans-boundary air pollution such as this yellow dust cannot be solved easily.

Protection of nature and biodiversity is a complicated area accompanied by social conflicts, in spite of the aforementioned small progress. Rapid urban and coastal development and industrialization, increasing demand for recreation and leisure, and land scarcity and rising land prices have encroached on forests, agricultural land and tideland. This has led to acute conflicts between development and nature conservation. It has not been always possible to reconcile economic development with environmental conservation. More arable land and mountainous forest areas have been exploited for golf course and road construction and more tideland has been reclaimed for industrial and commercial use. After the financial crisis, economic concerns have dominated the national conscience, while desire for environmental conservation seems to have been weakened. The defeat of environmental movements in the struggle against the Saemangeum reclamation project and the Chonsungsan express railroad construction project clearly showed the current state of eager economic growth-orientation in Korea.

Chemical management is also troublesome. Even though the risk posed by chemicals was warned of many years ago by Rachel Carson in her monumental book, "Silent Spring" (1962), more than 100,000 kinds of chemicals are circulated globally and over 2,000 kinds of chemicals are developed and commercialized annually. Chemicals are used everywhere, from home detergents to cars and electronics. In pursuit of a convenient life and profitable industrial production, their safety has not been assured through risk assessment. In Korea, since more and more chemicals are used, safe management of chemicals has become urgent. Since many chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyls, persistent organic pollutants, and endocrine disruptors can have fatal impacts on human health and the ecosystem, thorough risk assessment and cautious management are necessary. Chemical management is just beginning. This is a very critical moment requiring deeper recognition of the interlocking relationship between human and ecological health.

Climate change mitigation and adaptation

The most serious environmental problem Korea is facing now is increasing CO2 emissions. CO2, of which human emissions arise mainly though fossil fuel combustion, is the most important greenhouse gas (GHG). These gases contribute to the greenhouse effect, which causes climate change resulting from global warming. CO2 takes the largest share of total GHG emissions by volume, accounting for 88.4 percent in Korea, which is much higher than that of global level (77 percent) and industrialized countries (83.2 percent). Frequently, environmental quality improvement is explained in connection with per capita GDP by using the so-called "environmental Kuznets curve" but the relationship between CO2 emission and per capita GDP does not show the reversed U shape of the environmental Kuznets curve in most OECD countries. More income has been accompanied with more energy use and more CO2 emissions. It means that it is much difficult to decouple economic growth and CO2 emissions.

Korea has drawn global attention because of its unique situation and rapid growth of GHG emissions. Korea, with Mexico, is a developed country but classified as a non-industrialized country which has no obligation to reduce GHG emissions during the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol regardless of its OECD membership. Korea reached the 10th place in the world in 2004 in terms of energy-related CO2 emissions. Its CO2 emissions have doubled (rising 104.6 percent) from 1990 to 2004. This growth rate is the highest within OECD members as shown in Figure 1. However, comparison of growth rates among countries is not proper because of their different baseline in 1990. With regard to absolute amount of emission growth, Korea ranks fourth during 1990 to 2002.

Since annual growth rates of GHG and CO2 are gradually modified and GDP grew more rapidly than both emissions since 2000, GHG and CO2 intensities have decreased during the period of 1990 to 2004, by 0.9 percent and 0.5 percent respectively (see Table 1). Nevertheless, it is problematic that Korea's GHG and CO2 emission growth rates are so high and projected to continue their growth. GHG emissions, especially CO2 emissions, are highly correlated with energy use which enables rapid economic growth and more convenient lifestyles. The energy sector, the most responsible source for CO2 emissions in Korea, accounts for 83.0 percent of GHG emissions in 2004 followed by industrial processes (11.7 percent), agriculture and livestock (2.7 percent) and waste (2.6 percent). Korea's energy consumption has increased sharply since the mid-1970s accompanied with rapid economic growth driven by heavy and chemical industries. The increase in energy consumption has outpaced GDP growth for the last 35 years. Primary energy consumption in 2005 is almost 12 times higher than in 1970, while GDP in 2005 is 10 times that of 1970. Korea ranked 10th in terms of primary energy supply in 2004. Concerning per capita energy consumption, Korea (4.43 ton of oil equivalents in 2004) exceeded Japan (4.18 TOE) and most EU countries including the United Kingdom (3.91 TOE) and Germany (4.22 TOE).

Within the energy sector, the share of power generation is highest, accounting for 33.7 percent in 2004 in spite of the large use of nuclear power. There is a tendency that electricity consumption increases with life quality improvement. More economic growth is likely to be accompanied by increasing electricity consumption. Industry is the second biggest emission source, accounting 32.3 percent of CO2 emissions. Actually, since the industrial sector consumes more than half of the nation's electricity, more than half of the emissions from generation could be attributed to industry sector as well.

It is noteworthy that emissions from the transportation sector have increased most rapidly even though its share is 19.7 percent. Improvement of life quality and persistent demand for mobility and convenience will lead to a steady increase of cars on the street. In most developed countries, the transportation sector is the hardest sector to deal with.

Air quality deterioration and increasing CO2 emissions, and the simultaneously rise in energy use, will place increased burdens on the Korean economy as well as environment itself because of increasing energy prices, international carbon regulations and the increasing threat from climate change itself. Reduction of energy consumption through energy efficiency improvement and expansion of renewable energy are proper ways to respond to climate change and air quality improvement. The share of new and renewable energy in primary energy was no more than 2.3 percent in 2005. As shown in figure 2, new and renewable energy consists of 18.8 percent of hydro and 75.9 percent of waste. Only 5.2 percent of new and renewable energy in Korea is considered renewable energy in most OECD countries. This accounts for just 0.1 percent of primary energy. (Figure 2.)

The Korean government has dealt with climate change as a matter of convention or negotiation. However, climate change is a matter of survival. If a society wants to be sustainable, it cannot avoid responding to this issue. During the 20th century, the world temperature increase was 0.6 C but that of Korea was 1.5 C, 30 percent of which is regarded as the effect of urban heat islands through urbanization. Nevertheless, it means that temperature increase was higher in Korea than the rest of the world. Korea, as a peninsula with long coastal lines, is very vulnerable to climate change. Severe climate disasters happen more frequently and more strongly. Furthermore, the global market will refuse or punish CO2-intensive products in the long run. In this case, countries like Korea, whose rate of export to gross national income is high, will find itself in a difficult situation. Climate change is a matter of survival in both senses.

Koreans have become much sensible in climate change over time because they have witnessed and experienced symptoms of climate change and natural disasters. Last April, the Ministry of Environment released findings of public opinion poll concerning citizens' recognition of climate change, in which 1,000 citizens over 13 years old participated. According to the poll, 97.0 percent of the respondents knew what climate change was and 92.6 percent thought that climate change was serious (43.2 percent very serious, 49.4 percent quite serious). However, most respondents do not know details of climate change. Only 9.7 percent of respondents replied they understand climate change very well.

If so, what is an appropriate way for Korea? First of all, Korea needs to actively set up reduction targets even before the first year of a post-Kyoto treaty. These targets may become a signal for industry and the public to reduce energy consumption, and various policies and measures can be more persuasive and implemented more smoothly. Energy saving can be made through energy conservation, purchase of energy- efficient goods and devices, and fuel change. Also, use of renewable energy needs to be expanded. The most important thing that should be considered is energy saving through demand-side management. If an increase in energy demand is taken for granted and resources are mobilized to satisfy increasing energy demand, there will not be much change. Climate change requires change in land use patterns, energy- intensive industrial structures, oil-dependent agricultural production and, ultimately, our addiction to energy use.

In addition, it is necessary to study the impact of climate change and our vulnerability to it and develop strategies to adapt to it. There is no escape from climate change for Korea. Ironically, climate change accompanied with natural disasters is more unfavorable to the socio- economically weak, who are usually less responsible for advent of climate change and have less ability to cope with it. More active support is required to adaptation strategy development in terms of finance and personnel because climate change is actually occurring now and will continuously proceed and the least responsible are the most vulnerable. Even if we accomplished a GHG emissions reduction to 1990 levels by tomorrow, climate change would continue; GHG already emitted into and accumulated in the atmosphere will still cause global warming for a certain period of time.

Climate Change, the most important environmental issues in 21st century, is not just an environmental issue but also a survival- and security-related issue. Climate change, as an alarm from nature, is going to limit the current unrestrained and imprudent economic growth. Every nation is trying to have a bigger share of GHG emissions to avoid an immediate economic burden. In the meantime, climate change has been rapidly occurring and existence and the survival of most species including we human beings is jeopardized. In the international negotiation arena, inter-generational equity as well as intra- generational equity is lost. Every nation, especially countries more responsible for climate change, should take action at home first. Korea cannot be an exception. Climate change reminds us of the unsustainability of modern industrial society based on fossil fuels and unsound economic wealth-orientation. How our society deals with climate change could be the litmus test of the potential of sustainable development in Korea.