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[Green and New] How green and new is Moon’s deal?

President Moon Jae-in unveils the detailed road map of the Korean New Deal on July 14. (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in unveils the detailed road map of the Korean New Deal on July 14. (Yonhap)

The Korea Herald is publishing a series of articles to address the Moon Jae-in administration’s “Green New Deal” policy, one of the key pillars of the so-called “Korean New Deal” economic stimulus package. -- Ed.

Responding to the unprecedented socioeconomic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, South Korea has adopted a new weighty policy keyword this year -- “Korean Green New Deal.”

Despite the rosy pictures suggested by policymakers, there are doubtful speculations about this policy, partly because of its sudden addition to the nation’s core blueprint and also because of the resemblance to already existing energy operation concepts.

On July 14, President Moon Jae-in unveiled the road map of the measures, rolling out details of the 160 trillion won ($142.62 billion) economic stimulus package that seeks to create 1.9 million jobs over the next five years.

“The Korean New Deal is our new centennial blueprint, as well as a leap forward into a pace-setting economic model,” the state chief said in a meeting with business leaders held at Cheong Wa Dae.

“With the post-coronavirus era pressing upon us, we may no longer delay these historic changes such as climate change responsive actions and paradigm shift into an inclusive society.”

The New Deal package primarily consists of two pillars -- Digital New Deal and Green New Deal -- along with projects on the sidelines to reinforce social safety nets.

Of the total budget, government expenditure will account for 114.1 trillion won, while the remaining amount will be procured from local governments and the private sector.

Also, the Green New Deal projects will account for 73.4 trillion won, outrunning the digital growth and social safety projects which amount to 58.2 trillion won and 28.4 trillion won, respectively.

The presidential office’s announcement appeared to be a balanced approach to the economic contraction dilemma caused by the prolonged epidemic crisis -- to buttress new growth engines, promote sustainable growth through eco-friendly actions, and protect the socially vulnerable along the way.

But of the three policy pillars of the stimulus package, the Green New Deal was the odd one out.

The Digital New Deal and the social safety net enhancement respectively trace back to “innovative growth” and “inclusive growth” -- the two key economic policy slogans of the Moon administration since its kick-off in 2017.

The Green New Deal, however, only started to make headlines in May this year, amid growing concerns on climate change, epidemic breakouts, and other natural disasters.

When Moon initially presented the concept in April, the New Deal was mostly focused on establishing digital infrastructure to deal with the market’s structural changes amid the heightening COVID-19 crisis.

Addressing the Korean government’s relatively passive stance, Greenpeace International Executive Director Jennifer Morgan sent a letter to Moon in April, requesting that Asia’s fourth-largest economy demonstrates its proven leadership in climate responsive actions. In response, Seoul’s Environment Minister Cho Myung-rae vowed efforts to underline environmental issues during the country’s post-coronavirus economic recovery procedures.

But the Korean New Deal blueprint, announced on May 10, hardly included any environmental agendas -- triggering complaints from anticipating civic groups and market observers.

“It is yet uncertain whether the Green New Deal projects will be included in the Korean New Deal program,” said Cheong Wa Dae spokesperson Kang Min-seok, in a separate press briefing a few days later.

“It is President Moon’s firm determination that the green projects will nevertheless be a crucial part of the government’s post-coronavirus actions.”

It was later in July, when the government fully unrolled the fiscal details of the Korean New Deal program, that the green deal was stated as one of the key pillars, accounting for the majority of the given budget.

The Korean government’s phased decision to expand climate actions in its economic road map was welcomed by the United Nations.

Despite such progress, however, concerns persist that Korea’s Green New Deal may be off to a weak start, due to the lack of prediscussions. Some even point out that the stated projects and budgets are largely a repetition of conventional energy operation plans.

Greenpeace issued a statement to express “disappointment” over the Green New Deal, which it saw as lacking the fundamental awareness on climate crisis.

“The Moon administration vows to move towards carbon neutrality, but has failed to come up with any specific target or action plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” it said.

Carbon neutrality refers to achieving net zero carbon dioxide footprint by balancing emissions with removal or by eliminating emissions altogether. In order to reach such net zero point by 2050, global net human-caused carbon dioxide emissions need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in 2018.

“The Korean Green New Deal should include drastic fiscal measures to reduce coal dependency and set detailed targets for renewable energy production.”

Another vulnerable point of Moon’s Green New Deal is its resemblance to the unpopular Green Growth initiative driven by former President Lee Myung-bak. The Four River Restoration, which was the signature project of his Green Growth, is to this day cited as an anti-environmental decision in favor of the developers involved.

The Blue House admitted that Moon’s Green New Deal takes its core ideas from Lee’s Green Growth initiative, claiming that it is an “upgraded version” of the ecofriendly policies adopted by past administrations.

Some observers pointed out that due to the lack of detailed budget execution, the Green New Deal does not provide sufficient protection for the workers to be affected by the industrial transition.

“In some ways, the recently announced deal was a regression from the five-year green growth plan that was announced in 2019,” said Han Jae-Gak, chief for Energy Climate Policy Institute.

“In its previous energy policy blueprint, (the Moon government) mentioned the term ‘employment,’ suggesting that workers are to be protected during the industrial transition process. But this year’s report mostly uses the term ‘industrial sectors,’ an approach that excludes ordinary citizens from the picture.”

As for some of the detailed targets suggested by the Trade Ministry -- such as the reduction of coal-thermal power ratio to 31.4 percent by 2030, down from the 40.4 percent in 2019 -- the Korea Federation for Environmental Movements argued that the figures were but a simple repetition of the conventional energy operation plan, not an innovative step towards ecofriendly energy.

“The government should give a clear message to the people about the Green New Deal,” said Ban Ki-moon, former UN chief and current chairman of the Global Green Growth Institute.

He also advised that the numerous environment-related presidential committees should be merged and realigned under the Green New Deal slogan, for efficiency’s sake.

Korea currently ranks the lowest among 36 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in terms of air quality, Ban added, urging further policy efforts to eliminate the notorious title of “climate villain” in the international society.

By Bae Hyun-jung (