Monday’s IPCC report paints a bleak picture of the world’s response to climate change. The report reminds us of what we should already know. We cannot build new carbon-intensive infrastructure. We cannot pin all our hopes on future tech. We cannot delay implementing solutions that we already have at hand.
Unfortunately, South Korea continues to do the opposite.
South Korea is a country with a massive industrial sector that no one yet knows how to decarbonize, and an electricity sector that will take a long time to turn renewable. In the interim, Seoul needs immediate solutions, and domestic aviation is an area of some hope. With an extensive high-speed rail network crisscrossing a small landmass, shifting passengers from planes to trains to achieve emissions reductions is doable. But a refusal to even consider this shift, and a continuing push for new airport projects, may squander one of the country’s few easy-win climate solutions.
One of the largest projects is a second airport planned for the southern city of Busan, to be constructed on the nearby island of Gadeok. The airport is pushed by President Moon Jae-in’s ruling party, but opponents of the Gadeok Airport question both its environmental and construction feasibility. With 22 percent of flights at Busan’s current airport heading to Seoul, a journey that takes a comparable time by train, the question should be: Is a second airport even necessary?
Globally, air travel is coming under increasing scrutiny. This year in France, the Citizens Convention for Climate called for a ban on all new airports. The convention, established by President Emmanuel Macron, is also behind the country’s proposed short-haul flight ban. In the name of emissions reductions, the policy will end flights where the same journey could be made by train in under two-and-a-half hours. Austria is rolling out similar restrictions. With 62 percent public support for such bans across the EU, expect to see more governments adopting such policies in the coming years.
France and Austria were able to implement such bans by making it a condition for government bailouts to the airline industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. For South Korea’s air carriers no such environmental strings were attached to their 3 trillion won ($2.6 billion) assistance package. Instead, the national assembly pushed for a further expansion of air travel, with a special law fast-tracking the construction of Gadeok Airport — one of 10 new airports slated for construction nationwide.
This is a missed opportunity for South Korea. It reflects a continuing belief that climate change action can be put off into the future. Rather than achieving real emissions reductions now, by preventing new airports or introducing a French-style ban, Seoul sees bio-aviation fuels as the solution. This is despite the fact it is expensive, and attaining the required scale of production could be environmentally devastating.
For Moon’s Democratic Party, Gadeok Airport is a play for electoral support in the contested city of Busan. It also fulfills the government’s pledge of balanced national development for regions outside Seoul. At the local level, the project is part of a long history of Korean regional governments building airports as an economic panacea. The vast majority of these have ended up as unprofitable, empty, ghost airports.
In South Korea, the environmental movement has long campaigned against new airports but is yet to call for anything like a French-style short-haul flight ban. This is because the idea is very new in South Korea. Also, many fear that the shortcomings of South Korea’s employment and welfare systems will make it difficult for workers displaced by such a ban to transition to new jobs.
Korean workers face one of the most precarious employment situations in the OECD. Irregular workers make up at least 36 percent of the country’s workforce, while those with permanent positions still face bleak prospects if a business is downsized. With limited unemployment benefits, inadequate pensions, and an ageist hierarchical workplace culture, Korean airline workers could be worse off than their French counterparts in the event of a short-haul flight ban.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Other countries have shown how a just transition for workers can be achieved, and the number of workers affected is likely to be a fraction of those displaced in the near future by automation. But preparations for this future continue to be delayed; job-displacing climate policies continue to remain taboo; and South Korea’s emissions reduction goals continue to become less attainable. This is more concerning when we consider that the targets established under Moon are less than half of what they need to be, and the methods for achieving these reductions remain technically optimistic at best.
Given the Herculean task of decarbonizing its electricity and industrial sectors, South Korea needs any wins it can get. The cancellation of Gadeok Airport will not end South Korea’s aviation emissions. But it will be one less expensive project locking the country into future emissions. In much the same way, a French-style ban on short-haul flights in South Korea will not solve the climate crisis. But at least it would be a start.