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South Korea, a ‘developing’ country, embraces 2020 emissions cap, with important implications for a global deal in Copenhagen

By Climate Guest Contributor on August 4, 2009 at 8:01 pm

"South Korea, a ‘developing’ country, embraces 2020 emissions cap, with important implications for a global deal in Copenhagen"

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This guest post is by Julian L. Wong and Dan Sanchez at the Center for American Progress.

South Korea may not be outdoing the United States’ clean energy commitments yet, but it has just announced intentions to adopt a 2020 emissions cap, the first developing (non-Annex I) country to do so. Reuters explains:

The government said it would choose a target this year from three options: an 8 percent increase from 2005 levels by 2020, unchanged from 2005, or 4 percent below 2005. Its emissions doubled from 1990 to 2005, the fastest growth in the OECD”¦.  Officials said they marked a big commitment to head off an estimated 30 percent rise in emissions that would result if no action were taken.

One might argue if South Korea is really a developing country””it is considered one under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was adopted in 1992, but was in 1996 subsequently admitted to the OECD, which is usually thought of as a club of the rich countries.

One might also question the choice of a 2005 baseline rather than 1990, which all the targets in the Kyoto Protocol are keyed to.  The reasoning behind the choice of a 2005 baseline is obvious from the quote above, which explains that South Korea’s emissions have risen steeply in the years since 1990.  The result is that none of the three choices will result in reductions from a 1990 level.

Nevertheless, the symbolic significance of the announcement cannot be overstated–South Korea is the first non-Annex I country to indicate that it will adopt quantifiable emissions targets for 2020.  While the article notes that South Korea’s commitment could be “voluntary,” the 2020 timeframe suggests that the country may be open to a binding emissions cap in the December round of international climate talks in Copenhagen, where a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012, will be negotiated and likely to cover the period of 2013 through 2020.

Why is South Korea doing this?

There are at least three reasons why South Korea is being proactive on climate action.  First, there is an economic stimulus motivation.  This announcement comes on the heels of a recently reported “Green New Deal” that South Korea’s President Lee Myung-Bak has been campaigning for. That effort will spend $85 Billion, or nearly 2 percent of Korea’s GDP, over the next five years on initiatives that will encourage energy efficiency, renewable energy including solar and wind power, carbon credit trading, hybrid cars and biofuels.   The desired outcome, according to FT, is that this spending will create 1.56 to 1.81 million new jobs, and “for South Korea to become the world’s seventh most competitive country by 2020 in terms of energy efficiency.”

Second is energy security.  South Korea is the world’s second largest LNG importer, and the world’s sixth largest petroleum importer. Given the country’s heavy reliance on such fossil fiels it has also embraced several innovative technologies to achieve such a transition:

It also aims to increase use of hybrid cars, renewable and nuclear energy consumption, energy efficiency with light-emitting diodes and smart grids to achieve the target, which will cost 0.3 to 0.5 percent of GDP.

Third, the Reuters article mentions Korea’s fear of ‘climate tariffs’ as one reason it has embraced this policy (See here):

But the government on Tuesday pointed to the future risk of border tariffs on South Korean exports. In a statement, the government said the European Union and other developed countries might punish some exporting nations that do not adopt tough greenhouse gas reduction targets.

South Korea, as the world’s fifth-largest automaker, is heavily dependent on exports of manufactured goods and petroleum products to drive its economy.

Implications for Copenhagen

South Korea’s announcement has several implications for international climate negotiations.  It suggests that the increasingly artificial distinction between Annex I and non-Annex I countries may be starting to break down.  At the very least, it points to the notion that a purely binary categorization between the “developed” and “developing” countries is starting to evolve into a framework that can differentiate between various degrees of development.

Just as importantly, South Korea’s plan creates a model for how more industrialized developing countries might commit to global climate action””setting a pathway for a slow down in growth of emissions that eventually peaks at some future point, and then declines.

This adds pressure to the likes of Mexico, which like South Korea, is classified as a non-Annex I country under the UNFCCC, but was subsequently admitted to the OECD in 1994.  Indeed, Reuters is separately reporting that a senior Mexican environmental policy maker has indicated plans for Mexico to “put a detailed offer to cut the growth of its own greenhouse gas emissions on the negotiating table “¦ in Copenhagen this year.”  Mexico has already previously announced voluntary goals to reduce carbon emissions by 8% by 2012 from 2002 levels, and to launch a carbon emissions trading scheme by 2012, so there is good reason to believe in Mexico’s stated intentions.

If South Korea and Mexico are the first non-Annex I countries which decide to play ball, which other transition economies will start to feel the heat to follow suit?  Costa Rica has made some overtures to becoming “carbon neutral” (thought what that means and how serious they are is uncertain) by 2021.  What about Singapore?  Or South Africa?  If we go down the list of relatively industrialized “developing” countries, how far down do we have to go before we reach Brazil or China?

In addition to asking which other non-Annex I countries are “gettable” for a global deal, we should hone in on the question of how we are going to “get” them.  To what extent can the same combination of economic opportunity, energy security benefits and fear of carbon tariffs be used as leverage to encourage other non-Annex I countries to commit to emissions targets?  What about highlighting the co-benefits to public health of reducing other harmful air pollution like SOx and NOx in addition to CO2 reduction?

It is certainly the case that developing countries would likely want to act on each of these different drivers for climate action, but stop short of wanting to frame those actions in terms of hard targets for quantified emissions reductions.  China, with its ambitious commitments to energy efficiency and renewable energy is just such a country that sees the value in diversifying energy supply, creating new innovative industries and improving both the bottom line and public health through more efficient use of fossil energy, but is unwilling to commit to absolute carbon emissions to solve a problem it genuinely and understandably sees as being caused by the West.

Perhaps an approach that quantifies the unilateral domestic green actions of developing countries in terms of effective emissions reductions, and that aggregates those reductions into a single figure that serves as a virtual “cap” that can be compared to caps from Annex I countries is one way to “get” the other non-Annex I countries on board.  The Center for American Progress has previously described such a concept as the “carbon cap equivalents” approach, which could be just the mechanism the world needs to accelerate the shift away from a binary understanding of developed-versus-developing countries that is outdated and divorced from the reality, and that acknowledges the far greater diversity of development amongst the world’s nations and their corresponding capacity to address climate change.

Such a shift does not only not repudiate the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” but adds depth to its meaning because we are effectively calling for increased differentiation amongst countries, especially in the non-Annex I block.

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One Response to South Korea, a ‘developing’ country, embraces 2020 emissions cap, with important implications for a global deal in Copenhagen

  1. Tao says:

    This is not a new idea Julian. Agentina, “with encouragement by the US administration under President Clinton, proposed that it take on a ‘voluntary target’ linked to future GDP growth”, and submit it as a proposal during its host of COP 4 in Buenos Aires in 1998. It was then withdrawn from the table, due to both domestic and international pressures, not only from G77 and China alone. It served as a good case study of flexibile target for non annex-1 country in various researches afterwards.

    The situation of course has changed since then, but I think some of the lessons learnt are still applicable: “Need for thorough technical assessment, carefully considering country-specific emissions conditions, being conservative in economic projections, leaving room for growth, realistic assessment of technology and emission-related markets, domestic policy relevance and buy-in, long-term view, realistic understanding of international order.”

    I do not oppose the differentiation among countries or even among developing countries in targets, but I doubt that is an acceptable strategy in developing countries’ view in climate negotiation.

    For more details of the Argentina case study, see Daniel Bouille and Osvaldo Girardin, ‘Learning from the Argentine Voluntary Commitment’, in Kevin A. Baumert, O. Blanchard, S. Llosa, J. F. Perkaus (eds), Building on the Kyoto Protocol: Options for protecting the climate, (Washington: World Resources Institute, 2002).