Short introduction on South Korea’s emissions

Although CO2 is the driving force behind the temperature changes, other gases such as methane (CH4) also contribute their share to global warming, for example through the exploitation of gas fields, and emissions by livestock. While methane is emitted much less than CO2 on a global scale, it is a much stronger greenhouse gas (GHG). Scientists estimated the relative strength of the important Kyoto greenhouse gases so that we can convert all emissions to an equivalent of CO2 emissions. For example, the emission of one ton of methane has approximately the warming effect of 25 tons of CO2. The factor of 25 reflects the climate forcing on a 100-year time horizon, following the Global Warming Potential presented in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4).

With greenhouse gas emissions of approximately the equivalent of 745.5 mega tonnes of CO2 (Mt CO2eq), South Korea contributed 1.56% to the global greenhouse gas emissions of 2017 (rank 11 - incl. EU27 on rank 3). All emissions estimates exclude emissions and absorption from land, which result from activities such as cutting down or planting of forests (Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry: LULUCF). Emissions from bunker fuels (international aviation and shipping) were also excluded, as they are not accounted for in national totals.

For 2030, South Korea’s global contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is projected to decrease to approximately 1.22% (682.9 mega tonnes of CO2 equivalent / rank 14 - incl. EU27 on rank 4). The emissions projections for South Korea were derived by downscaling the Shared Socio-Economic Pathways’ (SSPs) “Middle-of-the-Road” baseline marker scenario SSP2. These pathways describe certain narratives of socio-economic developments and were, i.a., used to derive greenhouse gas emissions scenarios that correspond to these developments. SSP2 is a narrative with little shifts in socio-economic patterns compared to historical ones, and is connected to medium socio-economic challenges for both climate mitigation and adaptation. While different models were used for each storyline, per SSP (SSPs1-5) one model was chosen as representative “marker scenario”. As the emissions projections are not readily available on country-level, but national estimates are important, the pathways were downscaled in the aftermath. In 2017, South Korea represented 0.67% of the global population. Its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2017 were 1.67% of the global GDP.

Looking at the highest contributing emissions sectors and gases separately, we find that in 2017 the highest contributing emissions sectors were Energy and IPPU (86.0% and 8.5%). Amongst the greenhouse gases that are considered in the Kyoto Protocol, the strongest contributor with 90.3% was CO2. This was followed by CH4 emissions, with a significantly lower share of 4.2%. When not considering the sectors and gases independently, but the sector-gas combinations instead, Energy CO2 and IPPU CO2 (84.4% and 5.2%) represented the largest emissions in 2017.

Greenhouse gas mitigation and Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC)

In 2015, the majority of countries agreed to the Paris Agreement (PA), with the goal of “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change” (Article 2.1.a). Countries stated their pledges and targets towards achieving the PA’s goals in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). With Article 4.4 of the Paris Agreement, Parties decided that “Developed country Parties should continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets. Developing country Parties should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts, and are encouraged to move over time towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets in the light of different national circumstances.”

In its 2020 NDC, South Korea states that “The updated target is to reduce 24.4% from the total national GHG emissions in 2017, which is 709.1 MtCO2eq [SAR], by 2030. This is an absolute emissions reduction target that is more predictable and transparent than the target relative to Business-As-Usual (BAU) emissions projection in the previous first NDC. The updated target also includes an increased share of domestic reduction, which is facilitated through the Republic of Korea’s continued mitigation efforts such as the nationwide ban on construction of new coal-fired power plants.” (NDC, p. 1; GWP. p. 19). The country further provides a quantification of its GHG mitigation target, as “the Republic of Korea aims to limit the national GHG emissions to 536 MtCO2eq by 2030” (NDC, p. 3). The availability of national estimates of emissions mitigation targets and pathways in line with countries’ NDCs is of great importance when, e.g., aggregating to global emissions to then derive, i.a., the resulting end-of-century warming levels. In absolute terms, this target value is similar to the previous NDC submission. It is not clear to us from the NDC, which part of the contribution is unconditional (domestic reduction), and which part of the mitigation actions is conditional upon international support.

The Republic of Korea declares the target to be “economy-wide” (NDC, p. 2), and the 2017 base year emissions are explicitly stated as “excluding LULUCF” (NDC, p. 5). Further, it states the “Sectors, gases, categories and pools covered by the nationally determined contribution” as “Sectors: energy, industrial processes, agriculture, LULUCF, and waste” (NDC, p. 7), and mentions that “the Republic of Korea plans to use voluntary cooperation under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement as a complementary measure to its domestic mitigation efforts including LULUCF to achieve its target.” (NDC, p. 2). Therefore, we assume LULUCF not to be included in the 24.4% reduction target itself, and the absolute target emissions of 536.1 MtCO2eq SAR, but rather as potential additional measures under Article 6. As for the covered Kyoto GHGs, the NDC explicitly states CO2, CH4, N2O, HFCs, PFCs, and SF6 to be targeted, while additional information is provided on NF3 (NDC, p. 7; “The NF3 is not included because of the absence of its activity data. However, once the activity data is collected, it will be compiled in the National GHG Inventory Report.”).

Concerning the country’s long-term vision, “President Moon Jae-in declared in his speech on annual budget at the National Assembly in October 2020 that the Republic of Korea will strive to become carbon-neutral by 2050.” (NDC, p. 24).

The NDC-assessment is based on South Korea’s NDC submitted to the UNFCCC in December 2020.

The Figure below provides additional information, regarding both the baseline emissions used in our assessment and the quantified mitigated pathways for South Korea.

Baseline emissions and mitigated emissions pathways based on the country’s Nationally Determined Contribution. In terms of national emissions, we look at the SSP2 baseline marker scenario, and the emissions of all IPCC sectors. Contributions from LULUCF are excluded (exclLU), and the emissions are based on GWPs from AR4. The left panel (a) shows the baseline emissions, indicating the contributions of the Kyoto Greenhouse Gases CO2, CH4, N2O, and the basket of F-gases to the national emissions. If we could extract baseline data exclLU from the NDC, you can see their values as black squares (converted from GWP SAR to AR4 if needed). In the right panel (b), the quantified mitigated emissions pathways are shown, based on information from the country’s NDC and also on non-NDC emissions baselines, per target conditionality and range (marked un-/conditional best/worst). Even though not all countries have targets with different conditionalities or ranges, we need assumptions for all four cases to build one global pathway per conditionality plus range combination and to derive corresponding temperature estimates. Therefore, we indicate these four pathways here. Per combination, we performed several quantifications with differing assumptions and show the median and the minimal and maximal pathways here. Additionally, if we could quantify the targets based on data extracted purely from the NDC - or if the targets were directly given in absolute emissions, these targets are shown as squares (in the GWP originally given in the NDC).


Data sources and further information

  • Historical emissions: PRIMAP-hist v2.1 (Guetschow et al., 2016, 2019).
  • Historical socio-economic data: PRIMAP-hist Socio-Eco v2.1 (Guetschow et al., 2019).
  • Projected emissions and socio-economic data: downscaled SSPs (Guetschow et al., 2020, 2020).
  • NDC quantifications: NDCmitiQ (Guenther et al., 2020, 2021).
  • GDP is given in purchasing power parity (PPP).
  • Main emissions sectors (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC): Energy, Industrial Processes and Product Use (IPPU), Agriculture and LULUCF (Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry), also named AFOLU (Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use), and Waste.
  • Kyoto GHG: basket of several GHGs, namely carbon dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), and since the second Kyoto Protocol period (2013-20) additionally nitrogen fluoride (NF3).
  • Global Warming Potentials (GWPs): GHGs have very different warming potentials. To make them comparable and for aggregation purposes, GWPs are used (how much energy will 1 ton of a certain gas absorb over a defined period of time, relative to the same mass of CO2?).


1 Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), 14473 Potsdam, Germany