South Korea’s emerging concerns about air pollution and public health have reversed recent trends in the country’s coal use. Despite its limited domestic fossil fuel resources, South Korea had undergone an expansion in coal power plant capacity in the last decade.
More recently, environmental and air quality issues became increasingly central to South Korean politics given that the country has some of the highest levels of air pollution among OECD countries, and evidence points towards domestic coal power plants’ contribution to its air pollution. The new government elected in 2017 decided to phase out older coal power plants and has been reconsidering planned new coal builds.
However, despite the administration’s opposition to coal, it was able to convert only two of the nine coal plants under construction to natural gas, while allowing the rest of the builds.
Nonetheless, plans for renewable capacity expansion coupled with continued construction of two new nuclear power plants allay concerns on near term stability of power supply while challenging the need for coal.
Yet, the close ties between the power generation sector and political context bring uncertainty in the long term future of coal that may change under a different political context.