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Not So Green: A Critique of South Korea's Growth Strategy
By Sun-Jin Yun


IN AUGUST 2008, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak announced low-carbon green-growth (LCGG) as a new national development paradigm. Since then, it has become a major topic of discussion in Korea. In the face of the current dual crises of energy and climate change, the government regards LCGG as the right strategy, and announced a "Green New Deal Project" on January 6, 2009, in which the green growth strategy was combined with a job creation policy. Currently, every ministry in Korea is developing projects related to green growth, with the label "green" being used to describe numerous initiatives and policies.


Beyond South Korea, green growth is now part of the international agenda, with all 30 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) plus Chile, Estonia, Israel and Slovenia signing the Declaration on Green Growth in June 2009. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), meanwhile, launched its own Green Economy Initiative in 2008. In its interim report last August, UNEP cited South Korea as a model green-growth nation.


Despite all the attention green growth is getting, when we discuss the possibility of regional cooperation in East Asia to accomplish green growth, we need to clarify some key issues: Why green growth instead of sustainable development? What differentiates the two? More specifically, what does "green" mean in this context? What kind of policy instruments can be mobilized to accomplish the vision of green growth? When we dig deeper into these questions, we can discover the reality of green growth and what can be done for regional cooperation.


What it Really Means


The South Korean legislation defining LCGG says it is "sustainable growth with less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and environmental degradation." The strategy is expected to create many jobs in the field of green technologies and clean energy, while curing a potential illness: growth without employment. The legislation also provides the following specific definitions:


•"Low-carbon" means reduction of fossil fuel dependency, expansion of clean energy use, and, consequently, reduction of GHG emissions to acceptable levels through development of green technologies and expansion of carbon storage.

• "Green growth" means economic growth that seeks to be in harmony with the environment by reducing environmental deterioration and responding to climate change through energy and resource conservation, clean growth initiatives, increased research and development of clean energy and green technologies.


The pivotal idea is that the economy and the environment can create a win-win relationship that forms a virtuous cycle of clean growth, instead of the vicious cycle of economic growth leading to environmental damage. Minimizing resource use and pollution is achieved by applying green technologies and developing green industries as the basis for both growth and environmental protection. From the perspective of LCGG, clean energy technologies and environmentally friendly production technologies are very important. According to the South Korean government, use of efficient low-carbon clean energy will contribute to energy security, while at the same time reducing GHG emissions and counteracting climate change — together, these will lead to economic growth and ecological soundness.


The South Korean government has laid out three strategic factors for green growth: The first is sound economic growth with minimal use of energy and resources. The second is reduced CO2 emissions and environmental pollution with the same energy and resource use. The third is the creation of new growth through research and development in green technologies, with the aim of achieving early dominance in international markets.


A Critique of Green Growth


In reality, it is doubtful whether the South Korean government's proposed policies and projects are really "green." First of all, the meaning of "green" for the government is different from the original meaning of "green," as understood in the field of political ecology. In the case of the German Green Party, from which the symbolic term "green" originated, green meant direct democracy, non-violence, solidarity, feminism and self-determination as well as ecology. As a political movement it embraced diverse environmental, anti-nuclear, peace and gender equality themes.


But for the South Korean government, "green" growth means simply the reduction of CO2 emissions and environmental pollutants. Green has been significantly narrowed. For example, nuclear energy has become an example of green energy because it generates relatively low CO2 emissions even though the problem of the disposal of spent fuel has not been solved. The government looks to nuclear energy as a cornerstone of green growth. The word "green" as used by the South Korean government functions as a modifier to hide the active pursuit of growth. Green is accepted as a significant factor only when it contributes to economic growth. Consequently, the original concept of green has been distorted, while the government has preempted the green discourse of the domestic environmental movement and created what amounts to a growth-biased green discourse.


Old Growth Strategies


In particular, the South Korean government has promoted the Four Major Rivers Restoration Project — a massive engineering project that includes construction of 16 dams and dredging as the main elements in preparation for canals to link the rivers — all under the guise of restoration. The project, in fact, forms the backbone of the Lee administration's plan for green growth. Its essence is the building of weirs and the use of dredging for flood control and drought prevention as an adaptation to climate change. This approach is more in keeping with the 19th century rather than the 21st century, where the goal has been to remove dams and levees and to allow rivers to reclaim their natural course. Nevertheless, the Four Major Rivers Project accounts for 36.8 percent of the budget for the government's Green New Deal, the highest share, followed by railroad construction (24.5 percent). Both projects are land development-related, and are neither green nor prone to produce growth. In this respect, they do not fit into the main strategies for green growth identified by the government. In particular, the most problematic aspect of the four-river project is that it has been promoted without any social consensus or support from the public. Polls show that more than 70 percent of Koreans criticize the project not for restoring but for killing the ecosystem of the four rivers. Also, the way the government has proceeded — effectively ramming it through without respect for due legal processes — is suspected of violating a number of laws, including the Korea Water Resources Corporation Act, the River Act, the State Finance Act and laws relating to environmental policy, environmental impact assessment, cultural asset protection and so on.


So, not only is the project itself questionable, the means by which it is being pursued are problematic. Since November, class action lawsuits have been filed against the project, funded by public donations and with the assistance of lawyers who have volunteered their services. Indeed, the four-river project may be a window onto what the South Korean government's green growth strategy really means.


More fundamentally, the sustainable development paradigm is being replaced by the green growth paradigm, which at most is a sub-category of sustainable development. Green growth is not much concerned about social equity and citizen participation, and it has a limited capacity to protect the ecosystem. Actually, the concept of green growth first appeared in 2005 when the United Nations Ministerial Conference on Environment and Development in Asia and the Pacific was held in Seoul under the auspices of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).


Underdeveloped countries in the Asia-Pacific region were persuaded to pursue economic growth to eliminate poverty in a way that limited the harmful impact on the environment. Green growth was proposed for countries that have to grow to escape from poverty, not for countries that already have grown beyond the poverty line. Nevertheless, the government of South Korea, the world's 12th largest economy, picked green growth instead of sustainable development as its national development paradigm and has since tried to spread the idea globally.


Regional Co-operation


The 21st century is being called the era of climate change. A successful response to climate change is pivotal to the survival of human beings on this planet. Solving the problem of climate change is the most demanding task at hand. Fundamentally, climate change requires self-reflection on fossil fuel-based industrialization in pursuit of more economic prosperity and greater convenience. The green growth paradigm, however, devotes itself to finding economic opportunities in the response to climate change. What is more urgently needed is a serious effort among China, Japan and South Korea to tackle the challenges of climate change.


The three countries of Northeast Asia take very distinct positions on climate change. Japan belongs to the so-called Annex I parties to the Kyoto Protocol, and therefore has an emission reduction target (a 6 percent reduction compared to 1990 emission levels). China is the world's biggest developing country, and also the country with the world's highest CO2 emissions. But, since it is classified as a non-Annex I party, it doesn't have an emissions reduction target. Ironically, under the Kyoto Protocol, South Korea is also classified as a non-Annex I party, despite its membership in the OECD and its rank as the world's 9th largest emitter of CO2 in 2007. South Korea is thus positioned between Japan and China.


The combined CO2 emissions of the three countries account for 26.8 percent of total global emissions. All three countries' emissions have grown since 1990. During the 15 years from 1990 to 2005, Japan's emissions increased 16 percent, South Korea's 92 percent and China's 93 percent. Actions in this region are essential to avert the risk of global climate change. Until now, all three countries have prepared their mid-term (2020) emission reduction targets. Japan announced a 25 percent reduction target from 1990 levels. South Korea's mid-term voluntary target is a 30 percent reduction from 2020 "business as usual" (BAU), while China announced a targeted reduction of 40-45 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels in terms of carbon intensity. Can these three countries co-operate to combat the threat of climate change and ensure a sustainable future in this region — something more robust than the mere pursuit of "green growth?"


All three countries are involved in the Asia-Pacific Climate Change Partnership, along with the United States, India, Australia and New Zealand. This body pursues co-operation in the development of advanced climate-response technologies. However, it is not very active and has few tangible achievements. In contrast, China, Japan and South Korea have such intensive trade relations that they may have a bigger chance to cooperate in technology development and transfer than the other participating countries.


The three countries can also cooperate in human resource development for capacity building. Manpower is very important in climate policymaking and implementation. They can have training programs together to exchange information, skills and experiences. The three are in the same monsoon region, which means they experience similar impacts from climate change and therefore can cooperate in developing adaptation capacity. If there is no better time to act than now, then these three countries need to cooperate urgently.


Currently, there are increasing efforts to create a Northeast Asian carbon market among the three countries because China has the highest emission reduction potential, Japan has the greatest demand to purchase emission rights and South Korea has a dual position as a source of both demand and supply of carbon emission rights. China is the biggest host country for the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and accounts for 53.8 percent of the CDM's certified emissions reductions (CERs) — a form of emissions rights — and 36.8 percent of CDM projects. Japan, meanwhile, needs to purchase emissions rights to meet its Kyoto commitment in light of its ever-increasing emissions. South Korea, meanwhile, is now a CDM host country as a non-Annex I party, accounting for 3.5 percent of CERs, but its position may change in the post-Kyoto period.


Creating a Northeast Asian carbon market and carbon exchange remains a possibility, but it will require more discussion among the three countries. Given the different stages of economic development among the three countries, as well as their different political systems, it might not be easy to create an economic and political bloc in Northeast Asia like the European Union, but China, Japan and South Korea have an opportunity to co-operate toward a more sustainable future. Achieving that would mean a lot more than pursuing the narrower, and frankly suspect, illusion of green growth that is the centerpiece of the Lee government's environmental strategy.


Sun-Jin Yun is Professor in the Graduate School of Environmental Studies, Seoul National University.



Back to Issue
    In last winter’s issue of Global Asia, we devoted our cover package to the issue of green growth and included an essay by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on his country’s green growth strategy. Here South Korean environmental studies professor Sun-Jin Yun argues that the Lee government’s approach is too narrow to achieve sustainable development and masks an agenda that isn’t so environmentally friendly.
    Published: Jun 20, 2010
    About the author

    Sun-Jin Yun is a Professor in the Graduate School of Environmental Studies, Seoul National University.

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