Green Growth – the magic bullet from South Korea?

This article was first published in Asian Global Impact

In 2008 South Korea adopted a “green growth” model that countries around the world are now trying to emulate with the help of organisations like the Global Green Growth Institute. But has Korea’s story been an unqualified success?

If I asked you to shut your eyes and think of South Korea, I expect a range of images would swim in front of you. Perhaps the yin-yang (or strictly taegeuk) on the national flag, or the bright lights of a tiger economy with global brands such as Samsung and Hyundai to its name. Or maybe you’d mentally reconstruct video fragments of a certain K-pop single that took the world by storm last year.

One image that probably wouldn’t spring to mind is that of a trailblazing leader in the fight against climate change. But that, arguably, is exactly how former president Lee Myung-bak wanted to position Korea when, in a speech commemorating the Republic’s 60th anniversary in 2008, he proclaimed “Low Carbon, Green Growth” as the country’s new vision. The following year saw the launch of the Green New Deal, a £23bn fiscal stimulus package to fund a million environmentally sustainable homes, 2,500 miles of bicycle expressways and a host of other low carbon infrastructure and research projects.  This package formed the business end of Korea’s Green Growth Strategy which included a target for reducing national greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2020 relative to a “business as usual” scenario and stemmed from the philosophy that economic growth and environmental sustainability can – indeed must – be pursued simultaneously.

It was precisely this philosophy that underpinned the foundation of the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI), established as a nonprofit foundation under Korean law in 2010 with the aim of exporting the green growth model to emerging economies worldwide. Based in Korea, but with satellite offices in London, Copenhagen and Abu Dhabi, GGGI’s activities fall under three key strands – Green Growth Planning & Implementation, Public-Private Partnership and Research. Countries with specific needs that GGGI can meet are prioritised and programmes are initiated following a high-level request from the country’s government.

One of the first countries to benefit from GGGI’s green growth planning support in 2010 was Indonesia, with a focus on the provinces of East and Central Kalimantan. Together these provinces enjoy a high rate of economic growth but to date this has relied heavily on exploiting the region’s natural resources. Extensive deforestation has not only damaged habitats but also released vast quantities of carbon dioxide, helping to secure Indonesia’s place in the top ranks of greenhouse gas emitters.

GGGI began work in East Kalimantan in 2010 following Governor Awang Faroek Ishak’s launch of a new green policy setting ambitious carbon reduction targets. Five sectors, including agriculture, forestry and fuel, were identified as having a huge potential green growth impact as they were responsible for more than three quarters of the region’s GDP and nearly 90% of its emissions. GGGI has supported the provincial government in selecting three programmes for detailed research. One of these is reduced Impact Logging (RIL), a suite of timber harvesting practices that aims to minimise the damage caused by tree felling to the forest as a whole and has actually been found to be more financially attractive in the long term than conventional logging. Another programme is to optimise the use of degraded land by planting cash crops such as oil palm. Often a byword for environmental folly due to its association with deforestation, palm oil when harvested from degraded land is a far more sustainable product as it allows forests to be left intact for provisioning and regulating services, as GGGI’s Anna van Paddenburg points out. She notes that there is still more to be done to ensure greener growth in this area, suggesting that the palm oil sector should focus on intensifying land use and managing the use of pesticides and fertilisers.

Since starting work in Indonesia, GGGI has expanded its operations into numerous other countries including Kazakhstan, Cambodia and Peru. Heartening as this is, I find myself wondering why these countries would actively pursue green growth when, in the short term, a business as usual approach is probably more attractive. Another key player in this space, the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), has some answers in a recently published paper dealing specifically with “climate compatible development”, a similar concept to green growth with a strong focus on resilience to the impacts of climate change. A range of possible drivers for climate compatible development is identified, including natural resource scarcity, the need for energy security and the lure of new economic opportunities such as job creation and the stimulus of climate finance.

The paper’s lead author, Karen Ellis, is particularly interested in how the opportunities and threats posed climate change and resource scarcity affect a country’s economic competitiveness. Working for the Overseas Development Institute (a leading UK think tank on international development and a key member of CDKN) she and her colleagues are developing a “Low Carbon Competitiveness Diagnostic”, a resource for policy-makers to make a logical assessment of these opportunities and threats and develop an appropriate policy response. The development of the diagnostic has been informed by ODI’s work in Cambodia, Nepal and Kenya and there are now plans to test out these ideas in a variety of other countries and sectors. Ellis is hopeful that the tool will give policy-makers in low-income countries the coherence of understanding needed to convince their governments of the economic sense in pursuing a climate compatible development model where it is appropriate.

Back in South Korea, on the other hand, the goal of green growth seems to be slipping away as the recently-inaugurated President Park Geun-hye steers the country towards a new culturally-led growth model called the “creative economy”.  In the process, Lee’s Presidential Commission on Green Growth has been scaled down and the word “green” deleted from the names of various divisions of the Environment Ministry, whose head, Yoon Seong-kyu has criticized the green growth initiative for leaning more towards “growth” than towards “green.” This charge is nothing new – from the outset, environmental groups in Korea greeted Lee’s policies with scepticism, dubbing it “old-style fiscal spending with a new label” and pointing to his earlier high-ranking role in the Hyundai Group that stood to benefit significantly from the green stimulus package. The biggest controversy surrounded a multi-billion dollar project to dredge and dam four major rivers in a bid to improve water quality and security while controlling flooding, restoring river ecoystems and promote river-based recreation. Environmental groups have claimed that the project will actually destroy ecosystems and contaminate drinking water, while the Korean media has been filled with reports of broken bridges and flooded farmlands.

Despite this, polls suggest that the vast majority of Koreans feel that the green growth initiative has contributed to addressing climate change and tackling energy crises and think it should be sustained under the new government. Time will tell what Park Geun-hye’s change of stance actually means for Korea’s relationship with the environment and, while GGGI does not comment on Korea’s domestic policy, a representative I spoke to was keen to stress that the organisation enjoys firm support from the new administration. In any case, the global green growth agenda shows no sign of slowing and, challenges and controversies notwithstanding, I cannot help finding this inspiring. This year’s Global Green Growth Summit, focusing on the nexus between finance, innovation and policy, is being held in the Songdo International Business District which, a self-proclaimed Sustainable City boasting green spaces and green buildings but facing criticism from Birds Korea due to fears of habitat destruction resulting from mudflat reclamation, is perhaps a perfect microcosm of the complex journey that South Korea, along with the rest of the world, is taking into a difficult future.

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