Exports- the key locomotive of South Korea's economy - have been slowing as 2022 draws to an end. Image: Korea's KTX bullet train. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times

SEOUL – Zipping smoothly through landscapes at over 300 kilometers per hour, South Korea’s KTX bullet trains are racing toward greener horizons as the country, a slow mover and latecomer in clean and renewable energies, accelerates toward carbon neutrality by 2050.

The clean-and-green strategy of national rail operator KORAIL extends well beyond a switch from diesel fuel to electricity and hydrogen to power its trains. A larger part of the plan is a “modal shift” to expand the use of the rail net, thereby taking cars and trucks off the roads.

And as pressure increases internationally and locally to go green, KORAIL is doubling down.

It has also unveiled plans to sheath its properties nationwide in a shimmering armor of solar panels – to the point where the rail operator will generate as much energy as that produced by a standard, dedicated power plant.

Noting that Korea is enhancing its targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions, President Moon Jae-in, in an address at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, or COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland, this week, said the country has a bold objective.

But he admitted it will not be easy. The objective presents, “a Herculean task that demands steep emission cuts over a very short time horizon,” Moon said.

Korea ratified its 2050 net-zero commitment into law in September. But the country is a slow-comer to renewables, and as home to a power-hungry heavy industrial sector, is a massive emitter.

According to presentations delivered at the Jeongseong ESG forum in September this year, South Korea is currently the world’s seventh-largest emitter of CO2; its per capita emissions are the fourth highest on earth. That puts its emissions profile ahead of its overall economic size. It is a G10 economy.

And that is not all. Though South Korea is the global number eight in terms of energy usage, the percentage of renewables in its national energy mix is only 4% – putting it in 37th place among 38 countries studied in a 2021 report, “Powering the World,” by Utility Bidder.

These dire metrics, and the need to improve them, are putting the civil service under pressure and it is hustling to keep up.

Korea has already made major strides in LNG – a relatively clean power source, but still a fossil fuel. Government officials told Asia Times that while phased plans for cleaner operations have long been on the drawing board, there has been an accelerated policy focus over the last two years on two specific solutions: Hydrogen (as the clean fuel of choice) and solar power (as the renewable energy of choice).  

A smooth bullet train ride in South Korea, November 3, 2021. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times

Fast trains, clean trains

“Diesel trains which emit a large amount of greenhouse gases will be replaced with electric-hydrogen powered trains by 2050,” Yun Sang-won, a director at the Rail Policy Division of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, or MOLIT, told foreign reporters this week.

Most of that will happen well before 2050. Only in those areas of track where electrification is not available will 196 diesel cars continue to run after 2030.

South Korea, along with Japan, is investing heavily in hydrogen. The clean fuel is being adopted both for its generative capacity, and also for hydrogen fuel cells to power ships, trains and cars.

But the bigger part of KORAIL’s plan is less clean fuels, more expanding rail use – a format of terrestrial travel that is environmentally friendlier than road-going vehicles.

Thanks to budgeted investments in high-speed, regular and metropolitan rail lines, the “modal share” of the rail system will rise from 11.5% of current land transport to 17% by 2030, Yun noted.

Even so, it will not quite be a perfect system for freight delivery, admits Kim Do-han, a director at MOLIT’s Rail Operation Division.

“The merit of road is that it is point-to-point,” he said. When it comes to “last-mile delivery” of, say, exports, from rail carriage to an aircraft or ship, there are, a present, no rail lines direct to ports. So, “we’re thinking of connections,” Kim said.

That niggle aside, the modeled expectation is that rail-transported freight will rise from 26 million tonnes in 2020 to 80 million tonnes in 2050, while reducing 3.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in the process, according to Yun’s presentation.

The shift from road to rail is environmentally significant even on a personal basis, reporters were told.

According to KORAIL director Cha Chae-hwan, a passenger aboard the latest bullet train, the electric-powered KTX Eum, emits 16 grams of carbon per kilometer. Compare that with a car passenger, who emits 95 grams over the same distance, Cha said.

The “low-carbon, eco-friendly” KTX Eum, which started running on two lines this year, can embark 381 passengers per trip.

Beyond trains per se, KORAIL is expanding into energy capture. In May, KORAIL, MOLIT and Seoul Metropolitan City signed memoranda of understanding and initiated a task force on grand-scale solar power distribution.

KORAIL has vast acreage on which photovoltaic cells can be placed: The roofs of depots, marshaling yards, stations, track sides, tops of tunnels – even train carriages and windows.

In a three-phase project, to be completed by 2050, enough panels will be deployed by KORAIL facilities nationwide to generate a total of 456 megawatts of energy. By comparison, a typical Korean power plant generates around 400MW.

Alas, solar is not – at least not with present technologies – suitable to power trains, Kim said. Still, it could be used as a power source for KORAIL’s own facilities, thereby assisting the overall national renewable energy project.

Tactically, it all looks good. But there are bigger strategic questions hanging over Korea’s energy mix, power generation and stated emission targets.

While Yun, Cha and Lim come up with workable downstream solutions, solutions for upstream – the power generating sector – is above their pay grade. Indeed, the future of the Korean energy mix is now in the hands of the next president, who will be elected in March 2022.

The KTX even offers mobile phone recharging sleeves built into its seatbacks. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times

Decarbonizing power generation

As a manufacturing-led economy, South Korea must satisfy the massive appetites that its world-class semiconductor, auto, ship, petrochemical and steel sectors generate. This swath of heavy industry cannot rely on renewables, which cannot guarantee or store stable, non-oscillating power.

And the national grid at present is far from green.

“If you anatomize the portfolio of Korea’s greenhouse gas emissions, the largest part is absolutely power generation,” Lim Eun-jung, who lectures on both Korean and Japanese energy policies at South Korea’s Kongju National University, told Asia Times. “The key variable is how we decarbonize the power generation sector.”

Generating the requisite amounts of clean, stable electricity to power up the national infrastructure – including KORAIL’s trains – and its industry presents a major conundrum. This is particularly the case as the anti-nuclear Moon government has been forced to burn coal to take up the slack from a lessened share of atomic in the national energy mix.

“Our coal dependency is very high, nuclear is politically polarized and though we can install huge capacity in renewables, this does not guarantee stable supply,” Lim said.

Lim conceded that the government’s carbon neutrality targets are “aggressive.” But, she added, “In terms of feasibility, there is a lot of skepticism about the goals.”