Climate Is the New ‘Must-Have’ in South Korean Election Gameplan

(Bloomberg) -- South Korea’s deeply divided political parties have shown rare alignment leading up to next week’s election for parliament, with both backing candidates and policies advancing a green agenda.

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Surveys leading up to the April 10 election have shown tackling climate change is largely a non-partisan issue for South Korean voters, unlike in several other advanced economies where the gap between conservatives and liberals has widened. In a first for an election in the country, the main conservative and progressive parties have ranked the climate crisis among their top 10 policy pledges, but they’ll need to follow through with concrete actions to facilitate change.

Voters were reminded of the resource-poor country’s precarious energy situation when South Korea cut off imports of Russian oil and gas in response to the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This also revived awareness of the role nuclear power and renewables play in the energy mix for driving the economy.

“Climate change is like a must-have item on your agenda if you are a politician in the modern world,” said Kim Soo Jin, a visiting professor at Dankook University’s graduate school of carbon neutrality. “For this to have any long-term, meaningful impact, these candidates need to prove that they have very specific climate-related policy plans.”

The main conservative People Power Party and the main opposition progressive Democratic Party launched unprecedented searches to recruit candidates with climate expertise to run for seats under their banner. This could help them show voters they have experts in their camp who can drive the climate agenda in parliament.

In a nationwide survey conducted among 17,000 people in February, one in three identified themselves as “climate voters,” and almost two-thirds indicated they would still consider voting for a candidate or party for climate pledges even if their views on politics don’t align. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 0.8 percentage points at a confidence level of 95%.

Read more: South Korea President Seeks Majority to End Parliament Deadlock

While there’s a certain degree of disagreement on the power mix, the parties say there’s a need for an increase in clean energy and agree on the nation’s goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Both the ruling and the opposition parties have vowed to stimulate the emissions trading scheme by raising the volume of paid allowances.

The climate goals of the two main parties are generally in line with those of the left-leaning Green Justice party, which has a more ambitious and speedy plan for carbon neutrality and to increase the share of renewable energy to 50% by 2035.

One other major issue that the two biggest parties are both pushing are calls for boosting the country’s fertility rate that ranks lowest in the world.

South Korea has been a global laggard on emission cuts. Despite being ranked at close to the bottom on the Climate Change Performance Index of nearly 70 countries and regions, its response to threats of a warming planet has never emerged as a key policy issue in parliamentary or presidential elections.

The ruling PPP, which hasn’t before set climate change as a central campaign plank in major elections, made the rare move by nominating secretary general at Climate Change Center Kim Sohee as one of its candidates.

“Everything from global trade to employment is now being affected by the changing climate, which in turn means we can appeal to voters by addressing those risks,” Kim, 50, said in an interview.

“But using climate-related pledges as a tool to garner votes should be avoided, and parties need to work together to come up with long-term mitigation measures,” she said.

Kim touted the role of nuclear and renewable energy in meeting the net-zero goal, and vowed to double the size of a climate action fund to 5 trillion won ($3.7 billion) by 2027, which will be spent on supporting activities to curb emissions and helping carbon-intensive sectors to make transitions. She also seeks to establish legal ground for regular gatherings of the Special Committee on Climate Crisis so the parliament will have discussions leading to changes in policies and legislation.

The progressive Democratic Party appointed Park Jihye, an engineering major turned climate lawyer, as the first member of its talent recruitment. The party plans to expand the share of renewable energy to 40%, and curb emissions by 52% from 2018 levels by 2035. It has also vowed to permanently suspend all coal-fired power plants by 2040.

“The fact that I was the first member to be recruited shows how committed the Democratic Party is in addressing climate challenges,” Park said in an interview. “But we’re not yet there to call it a climate election because Korea hasn’t quite reached the point where climate issues are prioritized over other matters.”

--With assistance from Youkyung Lee and Jasmine Ng.

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