Coronavirus and Sustainability “COVID-19 Must Be Used For a Green Change”

People wearing masks, though under clear skies: Seoul in the coronavirus era.
People wearing masks, though under clear skies: Seoul in the coronavirus era. | Photo: © Yonhap News

In times of Corona, the air in Korea has improved – but the mountains of rubbish are growing. So how can the country still make a green change? An interview with Korean environmentalist Jieon Lee.

By Minjee Kum

Since the coronavirus hit Korea, the wind of change has been blowing through Korean society. Activity has declined at factories in South Korea and in China, and the air, which just last year was often thick with smog due to suspended particulate matter, is markedly cleaner. Meanwhile, however, more and more concerned citizens warn of a new refuse crisis amid growing heaps of discarded face masks and packaging waste from online shopping and food deliveries.

This scenario prompted South Korean President Moon Jae-in to announce in May 2020 that the Korean “New Deal” to revive the economy must include a “Green New Deal”. On 14 July 2020, the South Korean government announced a comprehensive roadmap for the New Deal, including a raft of specific measures for its Green New Deal. We met with Jieon Lee, Climate and Energy Coordinator at the Korea Federation for Environmental Movements, and talked about the environmental impact of COVID-19 in Korea and the Green New Deal.

Did COVID-19 have a positive impact on the environment in Korea?

Pollution is caused by human economic activity. Owing to the coronavirus, consumption declined and production was scaled down, so air quality in Korea began to improve. As recently as 2019, the government had to repeatedly announce emergency measures for several days at a time in March due to very high levels of particulate matter in the air. In 2020, ultra-fine particulate matter pollution has fallen by as much as 27 per cent compared to last year. Less particulate matter is blowing in from China, but the reduction in traffic and manufacturing in Korea has obviously had a significant impact as well.

It should be borne in mind, though, that the Korean government’s “Fine Dust Seasonal Management System” has been in force since December 2019 and may have had an effect too. But since Korea did not impose any “hard lockdown” measures, there haven’t been any other known positive effects on the environment to date besides the improved air quality.

Has the coronavirus had any adverse environmental impact?

At the Korean Federation for Environmental Movements, we have carried out a study of the current refuse situation. It shows that COVID-19 has increased the amount of waste due to disposable products. Food delivery services and online shopping produce a great deal of packaging waste, and most people in Korea wear disposable face masks. Korea’s recycling system is not very robust. We already had a trash crisis last year, and the biggest waste collection facility in Greater Seoul has already reached its capacity limit again. Owing to the increased use of disposable products, we’re already seeing the first signs of another refuse crisis.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, trash has been piling up again in Greater Seoul. Since the coronavirus outbreak, trash has been piling up again in Greater Seoul. | Photo: © Yonhap News In spite of the coronavirus outbreak, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere actually peaked this past May. How do you explain that?

Particulate matter and greenhouse gases act differently. Particulate matter is suspended in airstreams. As soon as people stop using fossil fuels, it disappears much faster. Greenhouse gases like CO2, on the other hand, remain in the atmosphere for several hundred years after emission. Greenhouse gas emissions have diminished in relative terms, but are still emitted in large quantities, so their concentration is still increasing. As a result of COVID-19, global greenhouse gas emissions look to be down 7 per cent on last year’s figures. We must take advantage of this impetus to transition to a green society.

What needs to happen in order to take advantage of the coronavirus crisis for such a transition?

The climate crisis is going to give rise to many more similar disasters in future. We need to put effective crisis response systems in place, and a green infrastructure is a vital component of such systems. After all, prolonged crises will eventually push the public healthcare system to its limits. COVID-19 has hit small businesses particularly hard, so the government measures are currently geared mainly to revive the economy. I’m worried this might mean a step backwards into the past. Greenhouse gas emissions declined even during the 2008 financial crisis, but when the economy recovered, there was a rebound effect, with emissions bouncing back up again with a vengeance.

Jieon Lee, Climate and Energy Coordinator at KFEM Jieon Lee, Climate and Energy Coordinator at KFEM | Photo: © private Moon Jae-in’s government recently promised to prioritize a Green New Deal. What’s your take on that development?

The ultimate goal of the Green New Deal is to solve the climate crisis. So we support it in principle. But Korean civil society still unanimously bemoans the lack of green in the Green New Deal. Just recently, Korean state-owned banks financed the construction of a coal-fired power plant in Indonesia and provided KRW 2 trillion in funding to the coal producer Doosan Heavy Industries. Which is why many people demand a clear-cut definition of “green”. Public funds must be invested in companies with a positive impact on the environment. 

A good example is “green remodelling”: improving the energy efficiency of old buildings. Replacing old windows and doors with new, highly efficient ones and insulating walls can reduce energy dissipation and create jobs as well. Furthermore, industry needs to shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. That will require assertive measures to introduce “green finance”.

What does “green finance” mean?

There are so-called ESG (environmental, social, governance) criteria for socially responsible investment. So before investing in a company, its benefits to society and its sustainability must be assessed as well. The Norwegian Pension Fund announced in 2015 that it wouldn’t be investing in coal anymore. The fossil fuel industry can’t survive without investment. This is why we’ve been calling, for a long time now, for measures to turn the idea of green finance into a reality.

During the 2020 parliamentary elections, the ruling Democratic Party for the first time promised to consider putting an end to state subsidies for coal mining. And the P4G initiative (“Partnering for Green Growth and the Global Goals 2030”) was supposed to hold a conference in June 2020 in Seoul, but it had to be postponed due to the coronavirus. One topic on the agenda was green finance. The Green New Deal already includes a plan to firmly establish green finance in Korea. Better late than never.

How can Korea become a more sustainable society after the coronavirus?

Even if the economic situation is tough, we need to focus long-term on building green infrastructure and achieving the goal of carbon neutrality. To this end, the government and media will have to make the grave consequences of climate change clear to the public and convince them of the need for change. 


The Korean Federation for Environmental Movements: Korea's Oldest and Asia's Biggest Environmental Organization

In 1993, eight Korean environmental organizations, including the Korean Anti-Pollution Movement Association, joined forces to form the nationwide Korean Federation for Environmental Movements (환경운동연합, KFEM). The KFEM is currently made up of 54 regional and local associations all over the country, as well as specialized and cooperative institutions such as the Citizens’ Institute for Environmental Studies, the Environmental Law Center, a monthly magazine called “The Way to Live Together” (함께사는길), the ECO Cooperative and the Korea Environmental Education Center. The KFEM is the Korean member organization of Friends of the Earth, which is one of the three leading international environmental organizations. Germany’s KFEM member organization is the BUND (Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland).