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.'
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Deputy Environment Minister Lee Byung-wook acknowledges the criticism. "At the emerging stage, most people can say growth is first and green is next," he admits. "Most people think that growth is more important [to the government], and I agree with them. But it will change."Skip to next paragraph
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Officials dismiss environmentalists' hostility as politically motivated sour grapes, born of resentment that a right-wing government has hijacked their cause.
Even some activists say that objections to the Four Rivers project have muddied the waters.
"Without the Four Rivers project, I don't think civil society groups could criticize the green growth strategy," suggests Choi Ye-yong, head of the Citizens' Institute for Environmental Studies. "But because of it, they don't believe anything" the government says.
South Korea is currently something of an environmental disaster area. Its use of energy, pesticides, and fertilizer – as well as its carbon-dioxide emissions – are among the highest in the world relative to the size of the nation's economy, according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
President Lee has pledged to announce his government's targets for CO2 emission reduction by the end of this year.
In the meantime, signaling its intentions, the government announced on Oct. 8 that it would accelerate its investment in electric-car technology to bring forward mass production by two years, to 2011.
By 2015, predicts Cho Seok, deputy knowledge economy minister, South Korean automakers should have captured 10 percent of the world market for electric vehicles.
That kind of profit potential is one clear motivation behind the green growth strategy, alongside environmental benefits. "Global warming is a crisis, while at the same time an opportunity that can create a gigantic market," Lee said in a radio address in August.
To that end, the government is focusing its green investment drive on projects to make South Korea a world leader in solar-cell production.
South Korean firms have already mastered advanced low-energy light-emitting diode (LED) technology, and the government plans to outlaw conventional light bulbs within four years. (A US phase-out of incandescent light bulbs, enacted by Congress in 2007, begins in 2012 and will be complete by 2014.)
Officials say they will also invest heavily in nuclear energy – another aspect of government policy that angers local environmentalists – which already supplies 40 percent of the country's energy supply. The new five-year economic plan also foresees a jump in the use of alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar.
It remains to be seen what all the green buzz currently animating government policy will actually achieve, UNEP cautions in an interim report on South Korea's efforts published last August.
It depends, says environmentalist Lee, how many slogans are translated into reality, as the government seeks to change citizens' everyday behavior. "Everybody says green is important, but nobody feels it is important," he points out. "We do not need any 'greenwash.' " We need practice."
• Kang Yewon contributed reporting to this article.