Constructing U.S.-Korea Cooperation on Climate and Clean Energy

The U.N.’s latest assessment of climate change concludes that it is “widespread, rapid and intensifying.” Having been approved by 195 governments, it’s hard to argue that the report’s key finding is open to debate.

How this dire prediction will be addressed at the upcoming COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow in November, however, remains an open question.

The task of herding the cats at that international climate confab falls to the U.K. But there are questions about whether the top of the U.K. government is devoting sufficient attention to the task.

The stakes are significant for domestic and foreign policy as the U.N. report notes that the world is certain to blow past the aspirational 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature increase threshold sought by the Paris climate agreement, and could surpass the fallback 2-degree goal if emissions don’t peak by mid-century.

The U.K., the U.S., and other major industrial nations like South Korea, have pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. But while the pathway to that goal will be challenging, the process of reaching it could provide an opportunity to strengthen the U.S.-South Korea partnership on climate change and clean energy.

One issue that runs through the U.K. hosting of COP26 is the role of nuclear power in meeting the mid-century zero-carbon objective. This is a theme that the British government may choose to underscore from its leadership position.

The U.S., U.K., and ROK currently generate about 15-20% of their electricity from nuclear power and for all three it is their largest source of low-carbon electricity.

But unlike South Korea, both the U.S. and U.K. have committed to the role of nuclear power as a clean energy source for the future.

In the U.S. this means taking steps to keep existing reactors open and providing funds and test beds for the next generation of smaller nuclear technologies. In the U.K., it includes building new large reactors and pursuing smaller nuclear technologies.

The Korean 9th Basic Plan for Long-Term Electricity Supply and Demand 2020-2034 calls for a substantial expansion of clean energy, primarily renewable solar and wind power, by 2030. Offshore wind power accounts for a significant portion of that increase with a plan to build an 8.2 gigawatt (GW) offshore wind project. That would make it the global leader by a large margin, the U.K. Hornsea One wind farm currently being the largest at 1.12 GW. The U.S. plan also calls for the completion of a massive 30 GW offshore wind project by 2030.

The scale of this transition is substantial and has many radiating impacts that are not yet well-understood for both countries. Aside from technical, licensing, economic, and political challenges, there also are geopolitical considerations particularly regarding China.

China is the global leader in the production of solar panels, manufacturing about 60% of the world’s total, and it produces about 30% of the world’s wind turbines. China also supplies about 80% of the globe’s rare earth minerals, which are used in renewable energy, battery storage, and electric vehicles—all key elements of a carbon reduction strategy.

Therefore, at least early in the clean energy transition process, both the U.S. and South Korea will significantly depend on China for their renewable energy components. One danger of this dependency is that China has proven that it will use trade as a weapon against other nations. This stance along with its political pugnaciousness and human rights violations are driving democratic nations into stronger alliance.

China also is seeking to extend its clean energy control to global nuclear power. It has a high profile, at the moment, in the U.K.’s proposed construction of its new nuclear plants. But the rising tensions have led to a rethinking of this relationship.

This opens an opportunity for other nations, including the U.S. and South Korea, to play a role. The May summit between the two nations resulted in an agreement to, “develop cooperation in overseas nuclear markets, including joint participation in nuclear power plant projects.” If the U.K. severs its ties with China on its nuclear projects new partners will be required.

And the reality is that the U.S. and ROK nuclear industries are reliant upon one another. This has been demonstrated in the nuclear plant construction in the United Arab Emirates. And the collaboration now extends to the next generation of nuclear energy with South Korea’s Doosan Heavy Industries and Construction Co. commitment to invest over $100 million in NuScale Power, the U.S. small modular reactor company.

Because energy is at the core of modern civilization and economic prosperity, the transition to its clean production will be an incredibly complex challenge for every major industrialized nation. This creates the opportunity for new collaboration between the U.S. and South Korea on the effective deployment of renewable energy, the management of the geopolitical and technology influence of China, and the development of nuclear power in third countries.

This is an agenda that can grow throughout the remainder of this century as the impacts of climate change clearly will continue to reverberate.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security