A tour of South Korea’s efforts to capitalize on carbon

In this series, travel the globe to find out where and how carbon removal is taking shape around the world. First stop: South Korea.

Daejeon, South Korea is home to the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, where a technology startup is turning carbon into commercial goods. Image: Adli Wahid

by Thea Walmsley

South Korea’s carbon removal landscape remains largely in a research and development stage. There is academic interest being expressed in scoping out the potential for carbon removal to be used as a pathway to the country’s sustainability goals, but so far there has been limited implementation of major carbon removal infrastructure projects.

South Korea has seen impressive reforestation efforts over the last several decades, however, indicating an area where it could lead by example for other countries planning to pursue reforestation as part of their sustainability goals. Its other major strength lies in its human capital and ability to direct resources towards the development of new carbon removal technologies.

What is the carbon context in South Korea?

South Korea’s rapid economic growth in the last few decades has propelled it onto the global stage, but this widespread industrialization has also resulted in its having the 7th highest greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) worldwide.

In terms of emissions by sector, the largest percentage of the nation’s GHG emissions comes from energy (85.7%), followed by industrial processes, agriculture, and waste. Emissions from fuel combustion make up 98.7% of the energy sector. Additionally, the country has a limited endowment of natural resources, meaning it imports nearly all of its oil needs (96%) and is the second-largest importer of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, in the world.

This is a natural area in which South Korea can invest more in renewables such as solar, wind, and biofuels, which the government has promised to pursue while moving away from its reliance on coal and nuclear power. The government has committed to increasing the share of the country’s power sources from renewable energy to 35 percent by 2040.

South Korea’s current climate commitment and policies

In 2018, South Korea pledged to reduce “business-as-usual” (BAU) GHG emission levels by 37% by 2030 across all sectors as part of its nationally determined contribution to keeping global warming between 1.5 and 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels — the guardrails established by the Paris Agreement.

In terms of other sustainability-focused policies, its main piece of legislation is the Framework Act on Low Carbon, Green Growth which it enacted in 2010. The act created the legislative framework for mid- and long-term emissions reduction targets, as well as South Korea’s cap-and-trade program, carbon tax, and plan for the expansion of renewable energy.

The country’s contribution has been rated as “highly insufficient” by Climate Action Tracker, which cites that targets in this range would result in warming between 3 and 4 degrees C — much higher than the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degree C limit.

What does carbon removal in South Korea look like today?

Technical carbon removal pathways (CCS, CCUS, DAC)

South Korea’s implementation of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) or Carbon Capture and Utilization (CCUS) facilities is limited at this time, remaining mostly in research and development phases. There are two completed pilot and demonstration facilities in South Korea: the Boryeong KoSol CO₂ Capture Test Site and Hadong Dry Sorbent Capture Test Site. Both are testing thermal power capture processes; the former uses a post-combustion capture system using advanced amine, and the other uses a dry regenerable sorbent technology. Two additional CCS test sites exist, which are set to be completed in the 2020s and, if successful, would be fully operational, large-scale facilities sourcing CO₂ from power plants in the area.

Apart from these facilities, there is little activity in pathways such as Direct Air Capture (DAC) or Bioenergy + CCS. There are some more experimental methods being tested: researchers at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) developed a new electrochemical system that can achieve both seawater desalination and carbon dioxide air-capture. In general, this area remains in the research and development stages.

Land use/natural carbon removal pathways

Since the 1950s, reforestation programs in South Korea have been a broad success. After the Japanese occupation of South Korea, forests were highly depleted from natural resource extraction. Through a series of rehabilitation plans and by cracking down on illegal logging efforts, the government was able to more than double their forested land; now, more than 60% of the country is covered in stocked forest. This model can serve as a starting point for other countries wishing to pursue reforestation as part of their sustainability goals. The government pursues ecosystem restoration projects as part of wider sustainability goals, as well, although it is not a major policy area.

There is also some attention being given to pathways such as soil carbon storage and biochar, although implementation is still limited at this time. The Korea Biochar Research and Development Center organizes on this topic, but most of the efforts are centered around research and scoping analyses.

Who is leading carbon removal efforts in South Korea?

There are two major nonprofits working in the space: Korea Carbon Capture & Sequestration R&D Center (KCRC), a nonprofit affiliated with the Ministry of Science who are working to develop CCS technology, build infrastructure, and develop CCS research and development, and The Korea Carbon Capture and Storage Association (KCCSA), which handles the policy and deployment sides of CCS, overseeing the development of “R&D strategies for demonstration, commercialization and industrialization of CCS,” as well as public education about CCS.

In terms of private sector engagement in carbon removal, some major energy companies in South Korea are showing interest in carbon removal. KEPCO, for example, is the major state-owned energy corporation in South Korea which operates 93% of the country’s energy generation. They are responsible for the two KoSol facilities currently testing the potential of fossil + CCS implementation.

Daejeon startup EN2CORE is developing a plasma technology that converts CO₂ into chemical commodities. The company’s lab, pictured above, is based in the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), South Korea’s premier school for science and technology. Image: Adam Kohlhaas

There are a couple of startups operating in carbon removal as well, including EN2CORE, a startup comprised of a team of scientists from Daejeon who have developed a new plasma technology that converts CO₂ and methane or low-grade coal and water into clean-burning hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which can be used as commercial products. They have partnered with South Korea’s largest state-run energy producers — like KEPCO — to take carbon off their hands and put it to use as inputs in EN2CORE’s CCUS project.

Korea Institute of Energy Research is the primary body involved in both policy and research work and developing new carbon removal technology. For example, a team of scientists have recently developed a new carbon dioxide capture technology which they claim is the most energy efficient among available methods (TKH 2012). Known as KIERSOL, their method uses potassium carbonate to extract carbon dioxide combustion gas released at industrial plants while using 20% less energy to recycle the solvent.

The most promising areas for growth

South Korea’s strong human capital, research institutions and technological capabilities make the country well-situated to lead in carbon removal, despite the limited implementation of technological pathways so far. South Korea has shown that it has high capacity for successful policy actions in the context of reforestation. Should carbon removal become a stronger policy focus, there is potential for the technology to be successfully integrated into South Korea’s sustainability goals.

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