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Sustainable Growth

How South Korea can prevent a self-defeating green recovery

Mar 30, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

The rules of economic growth have changed. From the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments have emerged with renewed sense of purpose, actively steering their economies to the tune of $12 trillion in stimulus. In the private sector, studies by Blackrock and Bank of America Merrill Lynch have shown responsible businesses most effectively weathering the pandemic.

These shifts in economic calculus, combined with growing impacts from the climate crisis, have awoken policymakers to the fact that a low-carbon economy can both protect our planet and provide new opportunities for growth. As President Moon stated following Korea’s commitment to net zero emissions by 2050: “By replacing coal power generation with renewable energy, we will create new markets and industries and create jobs.”

President Moon’s vision is compelling. The New Deal will back innovations in green construction, mobility and manufacturing to stimulate domestic growth and strengthen the hand of Korean exports. While these innovative sectors will be the ones making headlines, it is vital the raw materials behind the green recovery share the same low-carbon credentials.

Take the commitment to build 230,000 energy-saving buildings. Operational functions for buildings such as heating, lighting and cooling account for 28% of global carbon emissions — a climate impact that will be addressed by investments in energy efficiency and renewables. However, a further 11% of global emissions come embodied in construction materials and processes.

One need only look at the aluminium industry to see the imperative for low-carbon materials. Aluminium’s lightweight properties make it essential for electric vehicles. Similarly, as Korea phases out diesel locomotives by 2029, their high-speed replacements will rely on aluminium bodies. Aluminium’s ability to reflect up to 95% of sunlight makes it a mainstay of energy-efficient buildings, while metal also makes up around 85% of most solar panels.

However, not all aluminium is born equal. Because smelting requires a huge amount of electricity, the aluminium industry accounts for over 2% of global emissions. There is a huge difference between smelters using renewable power and those reliant on coal. The former can produce aluminium at under 4 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of metal, while the global average is 12 tonnes and reaches over 16 for countries where coal power is the dominant input. That difference is striking. According to Bionova research, low-carbon aluminium can reduce embodied carbon of wood-framed buildings by up to 20%, and 7% in traditional buildings.

The opportunity of a green economy comes with a stark choice. Without policies that demand emissions transparency and direct procurement to sustainable materials, we risk undercutting the aims of the New Deal. Korea’s direct emissions may fall, but a low-carbon economy built with high-carbon materials simply exports this pollution elsewhere. This will not only continue feeding the climate crisis but also hobble efforts to improve air quality, with up to 70% of airborne pollution in Korea coming from across borders.  

Whether it’s green buildings, electric vehicles or renewable energy infrastructure, low-carbon innovations will be self-defeating without low-carbon materials. Policymakers should ensure a true green recovery by establishing mandatory requirements for emissions reporting and clear standards for procurement.

They should also ease the way for decarbonised supply chains by removing tariffs on low-carbon materials. These measures can empower sustainable businesses to build a better economy — one that refuses to pass on responsibility to foreign nations, that embraces the challenge of low-carbon transformation and that truly delivers for both people and the planet.

By Gregory Barker

How South Korea can prevent a self-defeating green recovery
Gregory Barker is an executive chairman of En+ Group. He served as a UK Minister for Energy & Climate Change from 2010 to 2014.

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