[Editorial] Environmental laggard

A recent report from the International Energy Agency showed Korea’s carbon dioxide emissions have grown at the fastest pace among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development members over the past two decades.

Korea saw its per capita carbon dioxide emissions soar 111 percent from 5.4 tons in 1990 to 11.4 tons in 2013, in stark contrast with the 7.2 percent drop in the OECD average over the corresponding period.

The increase in Korea’s carbon emissions is attributable to the steady rise in its coal consumption. With the highest carbon content of all fossil fuels, coal is responsible for 44 percent of global CO2 emissions.

Korea’s coal consumption has continued to increase. A 2015 report from the Korea Energy Economics Institute showed that Korea burned 53.1 million tons of coal in 2014, up from 49.5 million tons in 2013. Since 2009, Korea’s coal consumption has jumped by about 50 percent, or 17 million tons.

Korea’s CO2 emissions have surged in tandem with the increase in its coal consumption. In 1990, coal combustion produced 90 million tons of CO2. The figure jumped to 290 million tons in 2013, accounting for 7 percent of the OECD total.

Korea’s growing coal consumption is due to its heavy reliance on the fossil fuel for power generation. Coal-fired power stations accounted for 30 percent of Korea’s power generation in 2014, second only to 39 percent from atomic energy.

The problem is that Korea’s coal consumption is expected to increase in the years to come, given the government’s plan to build more coal-burning power stations due to the growing difficulty in constructing nuclear plants.

The government’s long-term power supply scheme calls for the expansion of the capacity of coal-fired power plants by 18,000 megawatts — 66 percent of the present level — by 2023.

What this plan suggests is that Korea’s CO2 emissions are unlikely to drop in the near future. This is against the global trend. A recent IEA report showed that global energy-related CO2 emissions stayed flat in 2015 for the second year in a row.

The report said China and the United States, the world’s two largest emitters, both registered a decline in energy-related CO2, demonstrating a decoupling of CO2 emissions and economic growth.

To curb CO2 emissions, Korea needs to change its energy policy. The government should encourage power generation with renewable energy sources.

It also needs to raise electricity rates to stop households as well as industrial plants from wasting power.

Reducing CO2 emissions is important not only in fighting global warming but in improving air quality. A study by Greenpeace and Harvard University warns that ultrafine particles emitted by the nation’s 53 coal-burning power stations caused up to 1,600 premature deaths each year.