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South Korean provinces seek an earlier end to coal-fired power

08 September 2021 Amena Saiyid

Three South Korean provinces and a city that are home to most of the country's coal-fired generation called on President Moon Jae-in's government 8 September to set an earlier phase-out date for the power plants than 2050.

The provinces of Chungnam, Gangwon, and Jeollanam, as well as Incheon Metropolitan City, also urged the government to join the Powering Past Coal Alliance (PPCA), an international coalition of national and sub-national governments, businesses, and organizations working to advance the transition from unabated coal-fired power generation to clean energy.

The four jurisdictions, which already are members of the PPCA, aired their demands at the coalition's International Conference on Coal Phase-out & Response to the Climate Crisis, which is currently taking place in Chungnam.

However, they stopped short of issuing a deadline for a complete phase out.

"As phasing out coal is an essential condition for 2050 carbon neutrality, a transition to environmentally friendly energy must be implemented as soon as possible for sustainable development," according to an unofficial translation of the declaration provided by the nonprofit Seoul-based Solutions for Our Climate.

Carbon neutrality legislated into law

The jurisdictions made their demands less than a week after the South Korean National Assembly passed the Carbon Neutrality and Green Growth Act, which in addition to the 2050 goal, also requires the country to cut its GHG emissions by 35% or more from its 2018 levels by 2030.

South Korea is the world's 10th-largest emitter of GHGs, with a high reliance on imported fossil fuels, releasing 728 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2018.

The Moon administration has pledged to phase out new coal-fired generation and reach net-zero carbon levels by 2050. At the Leaders Summit on Climate in late April, Moon announced the country would no longer finance overseas coal-fired power projects, and would stop issuing permits for domestic coal-fired power plants as well.

Gradual retirements possible

According to IHS Markit data, coal is the largest electricity generation source in South Korea, responsible for 36% or 196 TWh from an installed capacity of about 36.9 GW. Natural gas and nuclear each account for roughly a quarter of South Korea's power generation fleet.

The country plans to shutter 10 coal-fired plants by 2022 and another 20 by 2034. However, South Korea also has at least eight coal-fired plants under construction with a combined capacity of 7.5 GW, which are all due to come online before 2025.

It is unlikely that coal will be phased out overnight, "but gradual retirements of older units are certainly possible. It is a matter of timing," Xizhou Zhou, who leads IHS Markit's global power and renewables practice, told Net-Zero Business Daily.

Citing IHS Markit analysis, Zhou said coal's share of South Korea's power generation is expected to drop by 17 percentage points by 2040, or about a 40% decline from today's level.

"That said, more aggressive retirements are certainly possible, but it requires careful planning to keep the electric supply system reliable during the transition," he said.

According to Solutions for Our Climate, the declaration is significant because the four jurisdictions, which have 28 GW of coal-fired capacity installed within their boundaries, are "both the largest emitters of GHGs and bear the greatest cost of the associated air pollution."

Securing the earlier phase-out commitment from South Korea ahead of the United Nations' COP26 meeting on climate change in November would boost global efforts to "consign coal to history" at the summit, according to the nonprofit group.

"It would also mean that [South] Korea could become the first country in Asia to join the PPCA, which would cement its role as the leading nation in Asia on green growth and climate action and support its candidacy to host COP28," the group said.

In June, Solutions for Our Climate persuaded a number of top South Korean insurers to back away from coal-fired power projects.


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