Mon, Jun 17 2024 17 June, 2024

South Korea sees rising climate litigation amid insufficient govt targets

A recent lawsuit in South Korea involving a baby among the plaintiffs marks an acceleration in climate litigation in Asia.

High Court of the Republic of Korea in Seoul (Photo: Rex Wholster)

The climate litigation is expected to put pressure on the government to step up decarbonisation efforts as South Korea prepares to revise its climate plans under the Paris Agreement, experts told Gas Outlook.

The so-called “Woodpecker” case against South Korea’s government seeks to prove that the government’s modest climate goals of reducing emissions by 40% by 2030 against 2018 levels is a violation of the human rights of the 62 plaintiffs, all of which were under the age of five — including one unborn baby — when the case was filed in 2022.

The case was later merged with other similar claims and was heard in South Korea’s Constitutional Court on May 21st.

With a final decision expected later this year, a successful outcome could put pressure on the government to step up its efforts to fight climate change.

“Next year, governments are expected to revise and enhance their climate plans under the Paris Agreement,” María Alejandra Vesga Correa, legal officer at Oil Change International, told Gas Outlook.

“Securing a favourable ruling could push the government to raise their climate ambitions.”

“Since the signing of the Paris Agreement there has been an increase in climate litigation across the globe,and South Korea can expect a wave of judgments ordering the government to do more,” she added.

Currently, South Korea’s Nationally Determined Contribution — an emissions reduction target that countries had to commit to under the Paris Agreement — is rated as highly inefficient by the Climate Action Tracker (CAT).

The CAT is an independent scientific project that tracks government climate action and measures it against the globally agreed Paris Agreement aim of holding warming well below 2°C, and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C.

While the 40% target is a “significant improvement on the previous NDC of 24.4% below 2017 level,” to meet the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C temperature limit, the CAT estimates that a domestic emissions reduction of at least 59% by 2030 is needed.

The current government, led by President Yoon Suk-yeol, took office in 2022 and made a u-turn on previous objectives of ramping up renewables, focusing instead on revamping nuclear power, as well as LNG and coal generation.

Such inaction over climate change is in turn fuelling legal cases against the government.

“South Korean Courts can expect more lawsuits seeking the recognition and protection of the Rights of Unborn and of Future Generations, and the ‘Woodpecker’ case could set a precedent in this regard, with a particular attention to the conduct of the State to meet climate goals and keep temperature below 1.5 degrees,” she said.

“Put simply: when governments make promises, they need to keep them, or the courtroom awaits.”

“This is among the first major climate-related cases to reach a high court in Asia and the plaintiffs are arguing that South Korea’s government is not doing enough to curb greenhouse gas emissions,” Amnesty International Korea’s Climate Justice Campaigner, Jiyoun Yoo, said.

“They contend that the state, by failing to act sufficiently to address the threat of climate change, has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to protect their fundamental rights, including the rights to life and a healthy environment.”

The case follows a rising trend of lawsuits brought by individuals who claim failures of governments to address climate change and to set more stringent emissions targets directly affects their wellbeing and harms their human rights.

The ‘Klimaseniorinnen’ case, where the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of a  group of elderly Swiss women who had claimed the Swiss authorities’ inaction over climate change had directly impacted their health and wellbeing, is a prominent example of that.

“This South Korean climate case hopefully will speed the snowball effect across the continent” amid  “a slow but promising increase in climate litigation,” Vesga Correa said.

“Climate cases in different jurisdictions inspire others” and “irrespective of the outcome, this lawsuit is having an impact and will boost this trend.”

South Korean fossil fuel investment

Aside from domestic targets, the lawsuit also brings into focus the large contribution of South Korea to fossil fuel investments globally.

South Korea “is the world’s second largest financier of overseas oil, gas and coal projects after Canada and just before Japan” providing support to fossil fuels with $10 billion in taxpayers money each year from 2020 to 2022, she pointed out.

While a number of countries have now ended their international public support of fossil fuels in an effort to align with climate goals, including France, the UK and Canada, she said “South Korea is lagging behind.”

The country “has yet to make any commitments to end its international public finance for fossil fuels, something that could change at upcoming OECD negotiations where the EU has tabled a proposal that would halt billions of dollars in OECD export support for oil and gas financing annually,” she said.

“We hope to see more future cases challenging this funding as it presents a major obstacle to the global energy transition and the build-out of renewable energy for all.”

“If financing for fossil fuels persists, countries will not only sabotage internationally agreed climate goals and overshoot the critical 1.5°C limit, but will continue to endanger human and fundamental rights,” she said.