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South Korea invests big in green industry – or does it?

Some 80 percent of its $38 billion economic stimulus package is for clean technology. But environmentalists say half the money is 'greenwash.'

By Staff writer / October 30, 2009


At first glance, the Borrego looks like any of the chunky SUVs that crowd today's roads, guzzling gas. Take a closer look, though, and you notice that there is no tailpipe.

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Under the hood of Kia Motors' most advanced experimental car sits a fuel-cell stack that runs on hydrogen and emits nothing but a low hum and a small puddle of water.

Still six years away from mass production, the hydrogen-powered Borrego is a poster child for the South Korean government's splashy new plans to build its economic future on green foundations.

"That's our dream," said South Korean President Lee Myung-bak as he showed the vehicle off to fellow Asian leaders at a summit in June.

Spurred by rising oil prices and last year's economic crisis, President Lee has thrown the full weight of his conservative administration behind what he calls "low carbon green growth." This, officials explain, is an overarching strategy to turn the country's back on the cement factories, steel plants, and shipyards that powered its postwar industrialization boom and seek economic growth from energy-­efficient technologies instead.

Though some question just how green the growth will be, the government is investing massively in the effort.

Eighty percent of its postcrisis $38 billion economic stimulus package will go to green projects, officials claim – the biggest proportion of any country in the world, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

On top of that, the government's five-year economic plan, currently before parliament, sets aside 2 percent of the country's gross national product for green investments – twice as much as UNEP is asking of world leaders.

"We are looking for a new development paradigm," says Kim Hyung-kook, chairman of the Presidential Committee on Green Growth. "We are trying to put this theory into practice."

There is, however, a worm in the apple. Half the "green new deal" money being spent to create jobs and pull the suffering South Korean economy out of its slump will go to a massive river-management scheme that environmental activists say is anything but green.

The Four Rivers Restoration Project, a $20 billion plan to dredge, dam, and channel the rivers designed to save water, prevent floods, and create hundreds of thousands of temporary jobs "is not revival, it means death for the rivers," argues Choi Yul, the country's most prominent environmentalist. "This is fake green growth."

Other activists complain that authorities have inflated their green credentials by simply rebranding old projects – such as the ongoing construction of a new high-speed railroad – as green. "This is 'greenwashing,' " snorts Yun Sun-jin, a professor of Envi­ronmental Studies at Seoul National University.

"This government is growth-­oriented ... but they call it green," she adds, because "low carbon green growth is a very sexy term."