Korean Province to Phase Out Coal: Implications for Asia

South Chungcheong Province in South Korea has become the first region in Asia to officially join the global Powering Past Coal Alliance. The Province is home to half of Korea’s coal-fired power plants, so this declaration is a significant step forward for Korea’s clean energy transition.

Today, South Chungcheong Province in South Korea has become the first region in Asia to officially join the global Powering Past Coal Alliance. The Province is home to half of Korea’s coal-fired power plants, so this declaration is a significant step forward for Korea’s clean energy transition.

The province is the largest user of coal power to join the Powering Past Coal Alliance, with 18GW of coal power, or about twice as much as all of Canada. Due to air pollution from the coal plants, the province issued the strongest air pollution standards in Korea last year to curb emissions from existing coal plants. Since a quarter of Korea’s greenhouse gas emissions come from South Chungcheong Province, the phaseout of coal will also help to reduce emissions in Korea.

The government is responding to the desire of local citizens, who expressed in surveys that they were very concerned about air pollution from coal plants and that they were strongly in support of a transition to more environmentally friendly energy sources. The concerns about the coal plant stem from the fact that deaths from respiratory disease are 1.5 times higher than the national average, and there are higher concentrations of cancer patients located near the coal plants. Furthermore, the waste released from the plants have damaged the fishing industry and local agricultural production. The government is rightfully stepping forward to respond to the demands of the public to transition away from coal. As stated in the declaration from the province:

“Chungcheongnam-do established the 'Energy Transition Vision' in December 2017. By 2050, coal generation will decrease to zero and renewable energy generation will increase up to 47%.”

As the Governor of the Province stated, Chungcheong province would like other provinces to join in this effort. It also explicitly stated that it’s more important to prioritize the health of citizens rather than the profits from coal plants. The coming energy transition will increase local renewable energy production from the current level of 7.70 percent. The province is also leading a push for more national-level action by pushing for the establishment of a “Coal Phase-out Roadmap” for the national government of Korea.

At today’s 2018 International Conference on Coal Phaseout and Energy Transition, the government also hosted experts from the UK, Canada and the US (represented by NRDC), to discuss the coal plant retirements that are already happening in these places. The government also encouraged other local governments around the world to join the effort to phase out coal.

Broader Implications for Asia

South Chungcheong Province’s decision demonstrates that an energy transition away from coal is already possible for the Asia region. At present, China, Japan and Korea are all still constructing coal plants domestically. Furthermore, Japanese, Chinese and Korean companies have also been involved in the construction of over 300GW of coal plants overseas in the past decade, often with the financial backing of their governments through national export credit agencies, national insurers, and national development banks. But the national mood towards coal in each of these countries is evolving quickly. Chinese companies are facing increasing local objections to coal projects being built overseas, including very recent examples in Kenya, South Africa, and Pakistan. In Japan, some of the largest investors, insurers and lenders in coal plants such as Dai-Ichi Life Insurance Company, Nippon Life Insurance Company, Marubeni have announced restrictions on supporting coal in the future. While loopholes in some of the institutional policies must still be closed, these lenders are following the global trend of divesting from coal projects that has already been well underway for several years.

How will South Chungcheong’s decision to phase out coal factor into future decisions on coal investments? For one thing, let’s hope the companies operating these coal plants in Korea don’t try to export their old equipment overseas or try to compensate by building more coal projects abroad. That’s an area to watch out for. But more importantly, having an Asian region operating large numbers of coal plants join the PPCA demonstrates that even in the region with some of the highest demand growth for power, energy demand can be met reliably with renewable energy, and not by highly polluting power sources such as coal plants.

The IPCC meeting is taking place this week in Korea and will share the assessments from scientists of the climate impacts that will occur if global temperature rise reaches 1.5 degrees Celsius. Global temperatures are expected to rise past 2 degrees Celsius, based on the national commitments made for the Paris Agreement. To avoid climate disasters even more severe than the wildfires, intensified hurricanes, heatwaves and flooding already happening worldwide, governments must commit to doing more than what countries pledged in Paris. Phasing out coal means eliminating the single largest source of emissions from the global power sector. Since national governments have not been ambitious enough at eliminating coal, local governments are now stepping up. South Chungcheong Province's announcement is a welcome sign that it is still possible to reduce emissions further, to reach the 1.5 degree goal, if we start increasing ambition immediately, even in the absence of national action.

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