South Korea's Green New Deal in the year of transition

February 8, 2021


In 2021, the COVID-19 crisis still looms large. Many countries are experiencing a third surge of the pandemic. The surges and new strains of COVID, with their continued impact on the overall political economy and society mean the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals are at stake. The need for a well-coordinated and holistic global response and recovery is urgent.

The Green New Deal idea goes back to the New Deal of former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Journalist Thomas Friedman is often credited for first calling for a Green New Deal in 2007. By that time, it was becoming clear that the challenge of climate change will require a comprehensive approach, and there was no politically expedient silver bullet.

A Green New Deal combines Roosevelt's government-led, society-wide economic approach of Great Depression era with modern technologies that will shift economies to low carbon.

While the combined health, economic and social impact of COVID crises exacerbate the existing climate and nature emergency, it also offers an opportunity for a smart recovery with a wide-reaching, fundamental restructuring of critical sectors. It makes economic sense to plan green recovery packages and for the transition to be socially inclusive, low-emission and climate-resilient.

This year could be crucial for an inclusive global, green recovery that focuses on renewable energy, green jobs, and ensures social protection for the most vulnerable. 

The Korean New Deal

The South Korean government has responded. It’s New Deal, plans to invest about US$144 billion in creating 1,901,000 jobs by 2025. The plan focuses on a Digital New Deal and Green New Deal, and includes overarching policy support to strengthen employment and social safety nets.

Korea has identified ten key projects ranging from green mobility to smart healthcare. It includes the central and local governments' involvement to bring innovation and jobs to the regional economy, with half of the money invested outside Seoul.

The Green New Deal focuses on renewable energy, green infrastructure and industrial sector. Its green car subsidy programme offers up to US$17 million in subsidies to people buying electric cars in 2021 and up to US$33.5 million for hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles. 

In December 2020, South Korea submitted to the UNFCCC its NDC and 2050 Carbon Neutral Strategy. The latter includes Korea's long-term strategy for achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. 

COVID-19 challenges

While Korea has generally been able to respond effectively to COVID-19 with rigorous contact-tracing and other preparations, there have been successive surges in the pandemic. Almost 79,000 South Koreans were infected, and more than 1,400 have died. The government plans to offer free vaccinations to its citizens from now on.  

Korea’s economy managed to stay open through most of the pandemic. Still, many people, including small businesses, and the self-employed suffered from the economic downturn. With the New Deal moving forward, the government aims to support a post-recovery economic resurgence called "inclusive recovery and takeoff". This will include continuing with stimulus packages to small businesses and individuals. In March, the government will launch the five-year K-New Deal Fund, seeking to invest US$3.5 trillion in 2021, with 35 percent financed by the public sector and 65 percent being raised privately.

Way forward

Korea remains the world's fourth-largest importer of coal and the third-largest investor in overseas coal projects. As its 2050 Carbon Neutral Strategy highlights phasing out all coal plants or converting them to liquefied natural gas by 2050, Korea requires a drastic acceleration of clean technology.

The next few months will be exciting. The New Deal's three-pronged model will be led by the private sector and backed by the government and it has generated high interest. Korea has exceptional IT infrastructure and digital competitiveness. It is increasingly recognized as a world leader in research and development, with a sophisticated consumer base pushing technology innovation and partnerships, such as the, UNDP and Samsung Global Goals initative. International companies are exploring the New Deal's key projects to identify market entry and expansion opportunities. Developing countries want to learn from the policy lessons on Korea’s recovery.

At the Seoul Global Policy Centre, UNDP has facilitated policy deliberations on green recovery under the Build Back Better webinar series. In May and Dec 2020, we organized two webinars with experts from Korea, Rwanda, Bangladesh and the EU. The discussions covered lessons on green recovery and emphasized the need to maintain momentum. Our latest technical webinar, organized with Korea Ministry of Foreign Affairs, included participants from 43 countries. This year, we will continue to highlight and share the various aspects of Korea’s Green Recovery and New Deal with partners around the world.