South Korea Outlines a Range of Emissions Reduction Targets They Are Willing to Adopt

south_korea_flagFor over a year now, South Korea has been undertaking an extensive dialogue to establish a target to cut their global warming pollution (see my discussion in Switchboard and this ClimateWire story — sub req. — from last year). And now the South Korean government has outlined the possible targets that they will commit to later this year (as reported by Reuters).

The South Korean government has just announced that later this year they’ll commit to one of three absolute target levels for their emissions in 2020:

  • 8% increase from 2005 levels;
  • Hold at 2005 levels; and
  • 4% below 2005 levels.

South Korea’s emissions experienced significant growth during the 90’s — doubling between 1990 and 2005 — as they developed their economy, industrialized, and pulled large numbers of their population out of poverty (remember they were one of the “Asian Tigers”). Their emissions growth has slowed during this decade, but it has still increased since 2000.

So the three proposed targets would still amount to a significant increase from where they were in 1990, but each target would represent a serious cut from where they would be if the government took no action (see figure*) — representing cuts of 20-28% below their projected levels without action. Given the past and projected trajectory of emissions, this is a significant reversal.


And they somewhat reflect South Korea’s share of responsibility to address global warming.

In the discussions about how much action each country should undertake there are different measures of “equity” (as outlined in this report [pdf]) that form the basis of much of the negotiation (often indirectly influencing country’s positions). The target options proposed by South Korea are within the range of efforts that South Korea would be expected to undertake in these measures of equity (see figure**) — although just outside the effort they would be expected under some important measures of equity.


The structure of their proposed targets is also of note.

All of their targets envision an absolute limit to their global warming pollution. That is a pretty significant step forward in the debate as they are now committing to keep their emissions below a defined total emissions level (an option on the table for major emerging countries in the global warming negotiations as I discussed here). We shouldn’t expect that level of action from all major emerging countries since South Korea is bit closer to many developed countries in terms of economic situation than most. But all countries should be measured by the level of effort that they are committing to and achieving — and this would mark a very significant effort by South Korea.

They are proposing these targets without incentives from developed countries, so these are their own level of action (so the “first wedge” of the developing country action that I’ve discussed here).

And they aren’t just promising a hypothetical target, but are also developing the domestic laws and policies to achieve this objective (so stay tuned). They are going to introduce sectoral caps and other laws to lay a legal foundation for the implementation of this target. In fact, this law has already been sent to the National Assembly. From the announcement you can see some emerging actions that will be at the heart of what South Korea focuses on to achieve this target, including: increasing the use of hybrid cars, expanding deployment of renewable energy, increasing energy efficiency, and development of smart grids.

While South Korea is unique as far as “major emerging countries” are concerned, this is still pretty significant for a variety of reasons. South Korea is:

  • the first “major emerging market” to propose an absolute economy-wide target for 2020 (much of the discussion for other emerging markets are for different types of commitments);
  • a major emitter — approximately the 12th largest emitter in the world — and a major Asian market — the fourth largest in Asia; and
  • framing their target when a number of countries are still being unclear about what they will do.

More details will need to emerge on many of the specifics, but this is a very important step for a major emerging market that didn’t previously have an emissions reduction target. It helps build momentum for Copenhagen and provides a boost for other major emerging countries to also commit to quantified actions to reduce their emissions.

Will similar kinds of commitments emerge from other key players before Copenhagen? Let’s hope so as we’ll need more of these types of commitments from key countries before Copenhagen can be truly considered a success.
* Sources: Emissions for 1990-2005 from the World Resources Climate Analysis Indicator Tool, available at:; Projections of GHG emissions based upon the US Energy Information Administration for CO2 emissions and US Environmental Protection Agency for non-CO2 gases.
** Source: Ecofys (2007), Factors underpinning future action: 2007 Update, available at:

Jake Schmidt is the International Policy Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, read his blog at NRDC’s Switchboard

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