South Korea and Japan criticised for approach to climate collaboration

Following a historic thaw in relations that has led to a deepening of military ties between South Korea and Japan, the two countries are targeting a new area of collaboration: climate and energy security.

Their governments are stepping up efforts to promote the use of hydrogen and ammonia as emission reduction tools for their industrial and power generation sectors. But the bilateral effort has been heavily criticised by environmental campaigners, who argue it could slow the global transition to renewable energy.

In a meeting in Seoul last month, Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol agreed to accelerate efforts to create a global supply chain for hydrogen and ammonia after unveiling the joint initiative last November.

Japan, which released the world’s first national hydrogen strategy in 2017, wants to use the gas as a “low-carbon” fuel, while Seoul has also set ambitious hydrogen targets, aiming to use it to meet a third of its energy needs by 2050.

Both countries are also promoting ammonia, a compound of hydrogen and nitrogen often used to make fertilisers, as a fuel in coal-fired power stations — to reduce their emissions and extend their operational lives.

“Japan and South Korea have similar challenges in terms of achieving energy security and clean energy, so there is much room for the two countries to co-operate,” says Noriyuki Shikata, Japan’s cabinet secretary for public affairs.

Neither hydrogen nor ammonia, when burnt, generates “end-use emissions” of carbon. But their production is highly energy intensive and environmentalists say neither country’s plan to expand renewable energy generation capacity is ambitious enough to remove carbon emissions from the process.

South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol (right) and Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida in Seoul in May © Ahn Young-Joon – Pool/Getty Images

Japan plans to generate up to 38 per cent of its electricity from renewables by 2030, compared with 22 per cent last year and an OECD average of 26 per cent. South Korea, where renewables account for just 7.7 per cent of electricity, last year cut its 2030 renewables target from 30.2 per cent to 21.6 per cent.

Hydrogen produced using renewable energy is commonly referred to as “green” because the process produces no greenhouse gas emissions. But 90 per cent of the hydrogen produced in South Korea, for example, is so-called “grey hydrogen”, which is made from natural gas, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“Green hydrogen, produced using renewable energy, offers a genuinely sustainable alternative and should be prioritised for hard-to-abate sectors like steel manufacturing,” says Seokhwan Jeong, a researcher at Solutions for Our Climate in Seoul. “Without this shift, the project risks leading South Korea into a high-emissions trap, undermining global climate efforts and exacerbating the crisis it aims to solve.”

Instead, the two countries are pushing so-called “blue” hydrogen as the short-term solution. This is the same as the grey version of the gas, except the carbon produced is prevented from entering the atmosphere using a process called carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Three ways to make hydrogen

Grey hydrogen
This is the most common form of hydrogen, produced by reacting natural gas with steam. The carbon dioxide that also results is not captured.

Blue hydrogen
Produced using natural gas, but with carbon emissions being captured and stored. Negligible amounts are currently in production due to a lack of capture projects.

Green hydrogen
Made by using electricity from renewable energy technologies to electrolyse water, separating the hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Currently very expensive.

Other shades include pink (made by nuclear-powered electrolysis) and gold or white (naturally occurring) hydrogen.

SK E&S, a subsidiary of the SK Group, is building the world’s largest blue hydrogen project in the west of South Korea. SK is also part of a project to exploit the Barrosa gasfield off the coast of northern Australia.

South Korea is exploring sending the sequestrated carbon to an Australian facility that would store it in a depleted gasfield off Timor-Leste. By 2030, the plans envisage capturing 10mn tonnes of carbon a year — equivalent to a quarter of the world’s CCS capacity at present, but just a fraction of its total emissions.

However, critics say CCS remains unproven as a viable means to mitigate the carbon emissions generated by blue hydrogen production.

“CCS is very convenient as a solution, because it means you don’t have to change anything,” says Sejong Youn, director of Seoul-based environmental group Plan 1.5. “The whole plan is based on a totally unrealistic reliance on an immature technology.”

Environmentalists say the bilateral collaboration amounts to both governments trying to preserve their existing fossil fuel-based infrastructure for as long as possible — threatening regional efforts to expand the use of renewable energy to hit carbon neutrality targets.

“The Korean and Japanese energy transitions are focused on sustaining the status quo with false solutions such as hydrogen, ammonia, and carbon capture and storage rather than shifting to renewables to cope with climate change,” warns Yujin Lee, director of the Institute for Green Transformation in Seoul. “They are wasting time. The more the transition is delayed, the more industrial competitiveness the countries will lose.”

Youn says the two countries, already in the top three importers of liquefied natural gas in the world, are planning to import much of the hydrogen and ammonia from the Middle East.

“Their plan is to go to oil- and gas-producing countries in the Middle East, build huge hydrogen and ammonia plants using their gas reserves, and transport the hydrogen and ammonia to Korea and Japan,” he says. “That is essentially just another fossil fuel import plan, and definitely not a climate solution.”

A recent report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a pro-renewables think-tank, says that South Korea is “accelerating its push to build new liquefied natural gas (LNG) import terminals and storage facilities, despite having some of the lowest utilisation rates for its existing LNG terminals.”

The country is also looking to exploit its own potential fossil fuel reserves. Earlier this month, President Yoon approved a Won500bn ($363mn) project to drill a prospect off the country’s east coast that could contain enough gas to secure domestic supplies for 29 years.

Japanese and Korean officials argue that Asia — which accounts for roughly half of global carbon emissions and is home to the world’s most modern generation of coal power plants — faces environmental challenges distinct from those of Europe or North America, meaning the pace of its transition to meet climate targets should be different, as well.

In addition to using hydrogen and ammonia to reduce emissions from dirty areas of the economy, the two countries also see the new technologies as a means to keep importing some energy from friendly neighbours, such as Australia, to enhance their energy security at a time of rising geopolitical tensions.

“There may be uncertainty about the future of the hydrogen and ammonia technologies,” says Kohtaro Ito, an expert on South Korea at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo. “But the relationship between Japan and South Korea is increasingly becoming multi-layered, and they have shared objectives when it comes to energy supply.”

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