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Climate Is High on Agenda as Korean Leader Heads to White House

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WASHINGTON — The United States is calling on South Korea to set more ambitious climate targets, an issue that will be a part of discussions when President Moon Jae-in meets with President Biden on Friday at the White House.

Last month John Kerry, Mr. Biden’s international climate envoy, traveled to South Korea and, according to officials in both countries, surprised members of Mr. Moon’s government by suggesting the country take “corresponding efforts” to the United States in reducing planet-warming emissions. That would nearly double South Korea’s current target of cutting carbon 24.4 percent below 2017 levels by the end of the decade.

South Korea, the world’s seventh-largest emitter of planet-warming carbon dioxide, is important to the Biden administration’s effort to show that other industrialized countries are acting vigorously against climate change.

“South Korea is one of the major countries that can say, ‘Look, together with America we are doing this’ so Biden doesn’t stand on the podium alone,” said Chung Min Lee, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The biggest consideration, of course, is China, whose greenhouse gas emissions now surpass all developed nations combined. China has vowed to peak its emissions no later than 2030 and reach net-zero by 2060 — but so far has been reluctant to commit to new targets.

On their own, ambitious new targets from South Korea are unlikely to pressure China, Mr. Lee said. But, if the government aligns itself with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — a coalition of the United States, Japan, India and Australia that aims to serve as a counterweight to China — to work on climate change and other issues, “it will show China that we speak with one voice, as we did in the Cold War with the Soviet Union.”

The United States under Mr. Biden has pledged to cut emissions 50 percent to 52 percent from 2005 levels by the end of this decade, with a goal of achieving carbon neutrality by midcentury. That’s where most nations need to be in order to hold global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels and avoid the worst impacts of warming, scientists say.

South Korea has made the environment a central pillar in its economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, starting a multibillion dollar program to invest in electric vehicles, battery storage, smart grids and offshore wind farms. The country also has pledged to get to net-zero emissions by 2050 and, at an international climate change summit that Mr. Biden hosted last month, promised to end funding of overseas coal plants.

At the same time, Korea has seven coal plants under construction, according to the Global Energy Monitor, a San Francisco-based group that follows fossil fuel projects. And, a new study by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology found that, unless the government enacted aggressive new policies, the country would “fall embarrassingly short” in meeting its current targets.

In a letter last week to Mr. Moon, former Vice President Al Gore urged him to set a target of at least 50 percent to “help protect the future of our planet.” More ambitious goals, Mr. Gore said, “would have a ripple effect on the climate policies of countries around the world.”

As a highly industrialized country that is heavily dependent on coal and imports virtually all of its oil and gas, South Korea faces serious challenges in meeting the United States’ and environmental groups’ expectations.

Won Hee-ryong, the governor of Jeju Province in South Korea, said he believed the government must improve its target, but he called hitting 50 percent “challenging.” Speaking Wednesday at a forum sponsored by World Resources Institute, Mr. Won said a more reasonable goal might be around 37 percent.

“It may be difficult for Korea to commit to an emissions target as ambitious as the United States, given that our emissions peaked only three years ago,” he said.

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