No More New Coal: South Koreans take power in their own hands

Glimmers of hope can be found in the hands of South Koreans, as they protest against plans to build what may very well be largest concentration of coal-fired power generation in the world.

On March 25th 2015, as part of Breakfree 2017, more than 1,500 people marched with members of civil society and the anti-coal movement to protest plans from the Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (MOTIE) & Korean private company SK to build two new coal plant units with the capacity of 1,160 MW in Dangjin City, which already houses the Dangjin Power Station, the world’s largest coal-fired powerplant with its 10 units producing 6,040 MW of power.

The latter half of 2016 saw massive mobilizations from South Koreans in their call for the ouster of President Park Geun-hye. This wave of renewed political involvement, as evidenced by this anti-coal mobilization, is seen to permeate other important issues of national importance in South Korea, including issues of climate and energy. Fine particulate emissions from South Korea’s massive coal-fired power facilities, including the world’s largest coal plant, have become high-profile political issue in the country, according to the 2017 Boom and Bust report on the global coal pipeline.

With the battlecry, “No New Coal & More Renewables,” local groups and civil society gathered on the eve of the 25th to launch their mobilization with a “pixel stick protest,” using sticks of light to paint images of dissent against the looming threat of coal in the city and in the country. The following day saw the crowd marching in united protest, armed with a banner signifying their calls.

This show of force is not surprising considering what is at stake, as such a project will only move South Korea farther away from abandoning coal as its primary source of energy in the following years. While the government announced plans in July 2016 to retire ten existing coal plants by 2025 and avoid adding further projects to its current roster of proposed plants, South Korea is still developing at least a dozen projects and the government still plans to rely on coal for over 32% of its power in 2029.

International pressure also is on South Korea to shift from carbon-based energy to renewables, as South Korea’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) submission has promised lacklustre policies in response to climate change. In their NDC, South Korea pledged to maintain emissions at 30% below business-as-usual levels by 2030, putting the country’s emission levels at 84% above 1990 levels by 2020. This fails in comparison to their Copenhagen pledge maintaining emissions at 81% above 1990 levels by 2030. Further encouragement of coal in power generation will prevent Korea from reaching even this watered-down target.

From a global perspective, the growing anti-coal movement in Korea is a testament to the ferocity of coal dissidents across the world, even with the optimism of coal proponents in the face of the continuous defeats coal has suffered these past few years.

Judging from their projections presented in the 5th Coaltrans Emerging Asian Coal Markets, coal companies remain confident in their investments as coal is forecasted to remain the second largest and “cheapest” energy source world-wide for next 3 decades. PT Bayan Resources Tbk. predicts coal consumption worldwide to increase by 15% by 2040 (an average 0.6% every year) with China, India and USA accounting for 70% of coal consumption. General Electric foresees a 100% increase of coal in Southeast Asia’s generation mix, due to the substantial growth of its economy. They also predict an increase in domestic coal production in China and India, from 927 million tons in 2013 to 806 million tons in 2020. Also, the reality of a climate-denying corporate executive currently sits at the White House serves to boost the morale of coal companies.

This “coal confidence” seems to paint a bleak future for the global anti-coal movement which has garnered increased strength with every victory it has won for the past few years: the divestment of the world’s largest public funds from coal, the staunch support expressed by the world’s major religious institutions, and even the goal of global decarbonization espoused in the Paris Agreement. While there have been significant policy changes undertaken by several countries like China in terms of the construction and operation of coal projects within their territory, it seems as if intensive coal use was merely displaced, but not replaced.

On the other hand, this year’s Breakfree mobilizations from different parts of the globe shun this “coal confidence” as a hopeless attempt to resuscitate a dying entity. More and more, peoples of the world are seeing through the smoke and mirrors shrouding the coal industry: the myths of “cheap” and “clean” coal; all these, with the growing support and popularity of clean, renewable alternatives.

If this awareness of coal’s well-established ecological and economic pitfalls continues to grow globally, the supposed resurgence of coal in South Korea, developing countries in Asia and the rest of the world may be nothing more than coal’s final deep breaths before its inevitable demise. The scope and ambition of coal projects pursued and proposed by this obsolete relic’s immovable proponents may point another way, but if the awakening of coal-affected peoples, as evidenced by the united citizens of South Korea, remains unstoppable, coal may finally be laid to rest where it belongs: underground.