During its 20 years as an OECD member country, Korea has shared many good practices with its peers. It has championed green growth at the OECD, as well as establishing the Global Green Growth Institute and hosting the Green Climate Fund. This third OECD Environmental Performance Review of Korea assesses the country’s progress in achieving its environmental policy objectives since the last review, carried out in 2006.

Korea has been one of the fastest growing OECD economies over the past decade, driven by a large export-oriented manufacturing sector. However, growth has come with high pollution and resource consumption. With increasing energy demand, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have risen significantly and air pollution remains a major health concern. Despite impressive improvement in wastewater treatment, diffuse pollution increasingly affects scarce water resources. Urbanisation and industrialisation are also putting considerable pressure on biodiversity. Environmental challenges are exacerbated by Korea’s population density, the highest in the OECD. Access to environmental goods and services and exposure to environmental risk vary significantly by region.

To tackle these challenges, Korea has invested considerable effort in improving environmental management, for example by introducing strategic environmental assessment, reforming the environmental permitting system and strengthening air and water quality standards. Korea introduced the world’s second largest emission trading scheme and remains one of the most innovative countries in climate change mitigation technology. Yet, coal is set to remain a core part of the energy mix, and road transport continues to be supported as the dominant form of mobility. Energy prices and taxes do not reflect the environmental costs of energy production and use. The Review emphasises that Korea needs to align its energy and climate policies to reduce GHG emissions by 37% below business-as-usual levels by 2030, as pledged at the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris.

Korea’s transition to a low-carbon economy is vital for its future prosperity. This is a core message of the Review, which provides 45 recommendations to help Korea pursue the implementation of green growth and strengthen environmental performance.

The Review pays special attention to waste and materials management and to environmental justice. Korea has a strong track record in waste management policies and boasts high waste recovery rates. The country was among the early adopters of extended producer responsibility, and has one of the world’s most advanced food waste policies. However, total waste generation has been closely linked with economic growth. Korea will need to focus on transitioning to a circular economy approach. The Framework Act on Resource Circulation, adopted in 2016, should help drive this forward. The Review recommends strengthening markets for secondary raw materials and recycled products, further promoting waste prevention, and better using data on waste and materials to support decision making.

Korea has made progress in compensating victims of environmental damage, notably through new laws targeting asbestos victims and establishing strict liability to shift the burden of proof to polluters. It has a robust liability regime for soil contamination and could introduce an equivalent one to assign responsibility for past damage to water bodies and ecosystems. There is potential to improve public participation and access to information on environmental matters, as evidenced by the controversy surrounding certain high-profile development projects. The Review recommends introducing mechanisms for public involvement in the development of environmental permitting decisions, opening the environmental impact assessment process to the general public and non-government organisations, and broadening disclosure of records on environmental behaviour of economic entities.

This Environmental Performance Review is the result of a constructive policy dialogue between Korea and the countries participating in the OECD Working Party on Environmental Performance. The Korean experience provides valuable lessons for countries promoting greener and more sustainable growth. I am confident that this collaborative effort will be useful to tackle the many shared environmental challenges faced by other OECD member and partner countries.


Angel Gurría

Secretary-General of the OECD