Chapter 1. Environmental performance: Trends and recent developments1

Korea’s strong economic growth has been driven by manufactured exports produced by large firms. High population density has exacerbated environmental challenges. This chapter provides a snapshot of key environmental trends in Korea since 2000. It highlights the progress made in decoupling economic activity from environmental pressures. The chapter presents the main economic and social developments, then examines Korea’s progress in reducing the energy and carbon intensity of its economy, in making the transition to a resource-efficient economy and in managing the natural asset base. The chapter also summarises key policy developments in specific areas, including energy, climate change, air, water and biodiversity.


1. Introduction

Korea has a relatively large export-oriented economy, poorly endowed with natural resources. Over the past decade it has been one of the fastest growing OECD economies, but at the expense of environmental quality.

This chapter provides an overview of Korea’s main environmental achievements, and its remaining challenges on the path towards green growth. Drawing on indicators from national and international sources, it reviews progress on national policy goals, and on international commitments and targets, focusing on the period since 2000. To the extent possible, it compares the state of the environment and key environmental trends with those of other OECD member countries. The chapter sketches out major policy developments in environmental sectors including air, climate, waste, water and biodiversity.

2. Key economic and social developments

2.1. Economic performance

Korea is the eighth largest OECD economy, and among the fastest growing. Real GDP increased by about 78% over 2000-15, compared with the OECD average of 28% (Figure 1.1). The GDP per capita gap narrowed from 65% of the OECD average in 2000 to 93% in 2015. Economic growth averaged 4.4% annually over 2000-11 but has since slowed to 2.8%, mainly due to weak global trade growth and sluggish domestic demand, constrained by high household debt. Projections for 2017 are for a gradual resurgence of economic growth to 3.0%, boosted by faster wage gains and stronger world trade (OECD, 2016a, 2016b).

Figure 1.1. Korea has been one of the fastest growing OECD economies

Economic growth has increasingly relied on exports, which accounted for 56% of GDP in 2012, compared with 35% in 2000, though the share fell to 46% in 2015 due to the marked slowdown in demand from China and other Asian countries (OECD, 2016a, 2016b). A number of Korean companies are world leaders in key industries, but the country faces strong competition from emerging economies, in particular China, and advanced economies in high-end markets (OECD, 2016a). In 2015, Korea was the sixth largest world exporter, with electrical machinery and equipment the most exported products, followed by motor vehicles and nuclear reactors (Basic Statistics). The country is also dependant on imports, particularly for its energy supply which represented 24% of total imports in 2015 (OECD, 2016b; Basic Statistics).

Subdued growth since 2011 has revealed structural problems, such as high household debt (which stood at 163% of household net disposable income in 2014, well above the OECD average of 137%), a lagging service sector and weak small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) (OECD, 2016a, 2014a). Residential investment is robust due to low interest rates, and investment in research and development (R&D) is remarkably high: Korea is the world’s most R&D-intensive country, with gross domestic expenditure on R&D at 4.3% of GDP in 2014 (OECD, 2014b; Basic Statistics).

The government has a strong fiscal position, with a budget surplus of 1.3% of GDP in 2014, against a deficit of 2.0% on average in OECD countries (OECD, 2016c; Basic Statistics). Korea is also among the least indebted OECD countries. However, the growing old age dependency ratio is expected to put pressure on public finances. While public spending was low in 2014, amounting to 32% of GDP (compared to the OECD average of 44%), it has been increasing rapidly, driven by rising expenditure on social protection, health and long-term care (Basic Statistics).

The tax-to-GDP ratio was the third lowest in the OECD in 2014 (25%, compared to the OECD average of 34%) (OECD, 2016d). The shares of revenue from taxes on income and profits and on goods and services are below the OECD averages, while the shares represented by social security and property taxes are higher. Environmentally related tax revenue slightly decreased from 2.65% of GDP in 2000 to 2.54% in 2014, but nevertheless remains above the OECD average (Basic Statistics; Chapter 3).

2.2. Structure of the economy and employment

Korea’s economic structure differs from those of many OECD member countries. It has a strong industrial sector, dominated by conglomerates, accounting for 35% of value added in 2015, and the service sector represented 63%, well below the OECD average of 75% (Basic Statistics). Manufacturing and energy-intensive industries, such as electronics, transport equipment (automotive, shipbuilding), chemicals, iron and steel, are predominant: in 2012, Korea was the world’s sixth largest producer of crude steel, with 4.5% of global production. In 2013, information and communication technology companies2 accounted for about 10% of GDP and 33.5% of exports (KOSTAT, 2014).

The country is characterised by a particularly high number of hours worked per person: 2 163 in 2013, the second highest level in the OECD. Yet, labour productivity (GDP per hour worked), at USD 31 in 2014, is well below the OECD average of USD 46 (OECD, 2015a). The level of labour productivity in the service sector is about half that in manufacturing. In SMEs, which are concentrated in services, it is less than a third of that in large firms. A decline in entry and exit rates of firms has held back productivity. SME policy promotes small firm survival rather than higher productivity, and very few grow into medium-sized firms. Product market regulation is among the most stringent in the OECD. Structural weakness in the innovation system limits gains from the high levels of R&D investment (OECD, 2016a).

The labour market is strongly segmented into regular and non-regular workers, with the latter (fixed-term, part-time and dispatched workers) accounting for about a third of employment. Women make up a disproportionate share of non-regular workers, who earn 62% as much per hour as regular workers. Consequently, wage inequality is among the highest in the OECD, particularly between men and women and between part-time and full-time jobs. The youth employment rate is among the lowest in the OECD and older workers are pushed out of firms at an early age. The shortness of the average working life contributes to an elderly poverty rate of 50%, four times the OECD average. Public social spending as a share of GDP is among the lowest in the OECD (OECD, 2016a, 2015a).

2.3. Population, regional disparities, well-being and environmental awareness

With 505 habitants per square kilometre in 2014, the highest rate in the OECD, Korea is among the world’s most densely populated countries. Some 70% of the population is concentrated in urban areas, particularly in the north-east around the Seoul Metropolitan Area and along the coasts, leading to considerable regional disparity (Basic Statistics; Chapter 5). Regional disparity also results in unequal exposure to environmental and health risks: life expectancy at birth is three years longer in Jeju than in Gyeongnam, and Seoul’s average level of PM2.5 concentrations is almost twice that of Jeju. Access to the national water supply network varies from 100% in Jeju to 83% in Chungnam; the population connected to sewerage ranges from 100% in Seoul to 73% in Chungnam (MOE, 2016a; OECD, 2016e; Chapter 5).

Korea has excellent performance in education and skills, civic support and governance, and personal security. It lies below the OECD average in environmental quality,3 social connections, work-life balance and health status (Figure 1.2). Some 85% of the population aged 25 to 64 has at least upper secondary education, compared with an OECD average of 76%. Korean students score well above the OECD average in reading literacy, mathematics and science in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (OECD, 2016f).

Figure 1.2. Well-being indicators suggest room for improvement in Korea

Korea’s population is the fourth youngest in the OECD but ageing rapidly as life expectancy rises and the fertility rate falls (to 1.2 children in 2013, the lowest in the OECD) (OECD, 2016g). This raises concerns about the future ratio of retired4 to economically active people,5 which is expected to increase from 17% in 2014 to 71% by 2050 (OECD, 2016h).

Health expenditure rose sharply from 4% of GDP in 2000 to 7% in 2014, yet remains below the OECD average of 9%. Despite increased public spending, households directly financed 37% of health expenditure in 2013, the second highest rate in the OECD, reflecting the need to develop Korea’s social safety net. The share of the population that reports being in “good” or “very good” health is the lowest in the OECD. Although cancer and cardiovascular disease are the main causes of death, Korea also has the OECD’s highest suicide rate and second highest mortality rate from road transport accidents. Since 2000, the number of suicide deaths has doubled, but road fatalities have fallen by half. About 9 million people were receiving medical treatment for environmental diseases (atopic dermatitis, asthma, and allergic rhinitis) in 2013, an increase of 17% since 2009 (OECD, 2016i; MOE, 2015).

Koreans’ level of interest in environmental issues has fluctuated but is generally increasing, and people are moderately satisfied with the environment overall. Public perception of environmental quality is evaluated through a national conservation awareness survey regularly conducted since 1995 by the Ministry of Environment (MOE), and a national environmental awareness survey that was conducted in 2012, 2013 and 2014 by the Korea Environment Institute (KEI). Satisfaction is highest for natural landscapes and lowest for noise and for pollution and accidents caused by chemical substances (MOE, 2016c). The concern about chemical substances stem from two major accidents in recent years. The first involved hydrofluoric acid (used in the electronics industry) that leaked from a plant in Gumi, killing and injuring several workers and residents. The second concerned household humidifiers containing sterilising agents that led to death and illness in hundreds of people.

Waste and climate change are considered the most severe environmental issues among respondents to the MOE surveys, who say priority for improvement should go to the natural environment and ecosystems. In the KEI surveys, waste and natural resource depletion were the top issues, and the need to address a lack of environment information and education was also highlighted (MOE, 2016c).

3. Transition to an energy-efficient and low-carbon economy

3.1. Energy structure, intensity and use

Korea has no oil resources and very limited natural gas reserves; it produces small amounts of anthracite. Thus it is highly dependent on external energy sources: net imports account for 87% of its total primary energy supply (TPES), more than triple the OECD average of 25% (IEA, 2016). The economy is among the most energy intensive in the OECD. Fostering energy supply autonomy is a driver of energy policies and an element of Korea’s green growth strategy (Chapter 3). In recent years the government has begun to shift its focus to energy demand management (IEA, 2012).

A carbon-intensive energy mix

The energy mix is carbon intensive: fossil fuels accounted for 82% of TPES in 2015, above the OECD average of 80% (Annex 1.A1; Figure 1.3). Although oil is still the largest contributor to energy supply, since 2000 there has been a shift to natural gas and coal, which have benefited from favourable prices and government subsidies (Figure 1.3; IEA, 2012; Chapter 3). The share of nuclear power in TPES has been broadly stable around 16%, while the contribution of renewable energy sources continues to be negligible (Figure 1.3; Annex 1.A1).

In 2015, 43% of electricity was generated from coal, 30% from nuclear energy, 22% from natural gas, 3% from oil and 1% from renewables (Annex 1.A1). Since 2000, fossil fuels have become more prominent, with electricity production from coal more than doubling and that from natural gas more than quadrupling (Figure 1.3).

Figure 1.3. Energy supply is heavily dependent on fossil fuels

Given the carbon intensity of the energy mix, aligning Korea’s energy policies with emission reduction is essential for achieving the country’s green growth objectives. The Energy Master Plan sets the key direction of energy policy and acts as an umbrella for sector-specific plans, such as those for electricity and renewables. The second master plan, established in 2014, outlines the transition to demand management and more sustainable energy policy, including the response to climate change, as two of its six major tasks. Expansion of nuclear power and renewables is highlighted as a way to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the energy sector, an aim reiterated in the seventh basic electricity plan along with demand management.

Plans to expand nuclear energy have been scaled back in recent years, however, and renewables remain a very marginal part of the energy mix (see section on renewables below). The government had strongly encouraged nuclear energy development, considering it a key instrument for reducing energy import dependency along with carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. By 2014, Korea was the world’s fourth largest nuclear energy producer (OECD, 2015b). Nevertheless, the Fukushima accident in 2011 and domestic safety problems reduced public confidence in the safety of nuclear power (Kosch O’Donnell, 2013). The country also faces storage issues: despite efforts to enlarge capacity, spent fuel storage pools will be full by 2024 (Cho, 2014). As a consequence, while the first Energy Master Plan initially planned expansion of the nuclear energy share to 41% of electricity generation by 2030, the second one lowered the objective to 29% by 2035. This means maintaining the current nuclear level in the electricity mix for two more decades, which will involve building seven reactors by 2035 (OECD, 2012a, MOTIE, 2014).

Korea’s second Energy Master Plan and seventh Basic Electricity Plan forecast that the share of coal in final energy consumption and in electricity generation capacity will remain fairly constant, putting in question the coherency of these plans with achieving Korea’s GHG emissions targets. As energy and electricity demand are expected to keep rising, and the seventh Basic Electricity Plan calls for closing all anthracite coal facilities and some other old coal plants, construction has begun on 20 new coal-fired power plants. To address fine particle emissions, the new plants will have far higher efficiency levels and meet stringent air pollution standards, and existing plants are being retrofitted to reduce pollutants and increase efficiency (MOTIE, 2016). The second Energy Master Plan also emphasises that coal plants will need to be equipped with carbon capture and storage as soon as this technology becomes available.

Energy intensity remains high

Although energy intensity is declining, in terms of TPES and total final energy consumption (TFC) per unit of GDP, it is above the OECD average (whether measured per unit of GDP or per capita) and declining less quickly than the OECD average per unit of GDP. TPES has increased rapidly (+47%) since 2000, but more slowly than economic activity (+78%). From 2000 to 2015, TPES grew at an average annual rate of 2.4%, with a jump of 9.0% in 2010, the year after the economic crisis. Korea was not on track to meet the target set by the first Energy Master Plan of reducing energy intensity by 46% between 2007 and 2030 (Annex 1.A1; MOTIE, 2014a).

Development of renewables remains a challenge

In 2015, renewable energy sources accounted for 1.5% of TPES and 1.4% of electricity generation (Figure 1.3), the lowest shares among OECD countries. Biofuel and biogas represented 68% of renewables, followed by waste (9%), solar energy (6%), hydropower (5%) and geothermal energy (3%) (IEA, 2016).

According to the national definition,6 new and renewable energy sources represented 4.1% of TPES in 2014, compared with 2.1% in 2004. Waste (products burnt for heat and/or power, but also biogas and biofuels produced from waste) is the primary such source (60%), followed by biomass (24%), hydro and solar (5% each), wind and ocean (3%), fuel cells (2%) and geothermal (1%). The fourth National Basic Plan for New and Renewable Energy (2014) aims to modify the mix by 2035, reducing the share of waste to 29.2% while increasing wind to 18.2%, biomass to 18.0% and solar to 14.1% (Figure 1.4; MOTIE, 2015). New and renewable sources would thus supply 13.4% of electricity.

Figure 1.4. The objective for new and renewable energy sources will be hard to achieve

Korea has consistently missed its renewables targets, and its current targets appear difficult to achieve. The second National Basic Plan for New and Renewable Energy (2003-12) aimed to increase the share of new and renewable sources in TPES to 3% by 2006 and to 5% by 2011, yet reached only 2.2% and 2.7%, respectively. After missing the 2006 target, the government lowered and postponed the targets in the third plan (2008-30) to 2.98% in 2010 and 11% in 2030. The 2010 objective was not met either, with new and renewable sources accounting for 2.6%. The fourth plan (2014-35) pushed the 11% target back to 2035, with intermediate targets of 5.0% in 2020 and 7.7% in 2025 (Figure 1.4; KEMCO, 2014; MOTIE, 2003).

Energy consumption

TFC increased by 34% over 2000-14, far less than economic activity (74%). The industrial sector is the largest consumer, using energy resources both for energy (29%) and as raw materials in production processes (non-energy use) (27%), followed by transport (19%), the commercial sector (12%) and the residential sector (11%) (Figure 1.5). This is an unusual consumption pattern for an OECD country; on average, the transport sector is the largest energy consumer (33% in 2014), and industry consumes on levels similar to that of the residential sector (22% and 19%, respectively). Since 2000, Korean industry’s non-energy consumption has almost doubled and its energy use increased by 28%, while transport use rose by 21% (Figure 1.4). Iron and steel, chemicals and petrochemicals and machinery account for 60% of industry energy consumption.

Figure 1.5. Industries dominate Korea’s energy consumption

Electricity demand has risen rapidly, spurred by lower prices than those for other energy forms, which has encouraged switching (MOTIE, 2014). Electricity production has nearly doubled since 2000 to meet this demand, particularly from the industrial, commercial and public sectors; electricity generation intensity increased by 6% over 2000-15 (Figure 1.3).

Energy consumption grew faster than forecast by the first Energy Master Plan between 2007 and 2012, which was a factor in the government reorienting its second Energy Master Plan around demand management. The second plan sets the targets of reducing electricity demand by 15% and energy demand by 13% below the business-as-usual trajectory by 2035. It intends to achieve these targets by reforming energy taxes and electricity prices, increasing the use of technology and information systems, and reinforcing energy efficiency policies (MOTIE, 2014; Chapter 3).

3.2. Transport

The transport sector is the second highest energy consumer (19%) and GHG emitter (12%). As in many countries, road transport accounts for almost all the energy consumed by the sector (96% in 2014). The share of road in passenger transport7 is predominant, accounting for 83% of passenger transport volume in 2013, a rapid increase from 56% in 2002; the share of rail and air transport decreased accordingly to 15% and 2%, respectively (MOLIT, 2016).

With 40 vehicles for 100 inhabitants in 2014, Korea has low motor vehicle ownership compared with the OECD average of 59 (Annex 1.A2). However, the number of vehicles has increased as the economy and incomes have grown: car registration rose by 44% over 2002-14. The share of petrol vehicles in total registrations decreased from 55% in 2002 to 47% at the beginning of 2016, while diesel vehicles increased from 33% to 41%. The remaining vehicles run on LPG (11%), whose share was stable over the period, or are hybrids (1%) (MOLIT, 2015a). The rising share of diesel vehicles, such as SUVs, can be partly attributed to an increase in leisure activities.

Traffic volume and road construction accelerated accordingly: total road length increased by 19% between 2000 and 2014 and the national expressway length almost doubled. Traffic congestion also rose: congestion costs were estimated at KRW 30.3 trillion in 2012, the highest level since measurement began in 1993, representing 2.2% of GDP. Of that, KRW 19.2 trillion is concentrated in seven major metropolitan areas, with KRW 8.4 trillion in Seoul alone (Cho, 2014). Freight transport is also dominated by road: in 2013, 75% of domestic freight8 was transported by road, 19% by water and 7% by rail. Although the share of road has increased in the past decade, there has been a slight reduction in recent years (-1% in 2012-13) balanced by an increase in maritime transport (MOLIT, 2016).

3.3. Greenhouse gas emissions

Emissions profile

Korea was the fifth largest GHG emitter in the OECD in 2013. Total GHG emissions, excluding emissions/removals from land-use, land-use change and forestry, had increased by 138% since 1990 and by 39% since 2000 – the highest increase in the OECD after Turkey – in contrast with the trend of declining GHG emissions across the OECD as a whole. Nonetheless, as GDP increased by more than 200% over 1990-2013 and by 68% since 2000, GHG emissions have been relatively decoupled from the economic growth. GHG emission intensity per capita and per unit of GDP was above the OECD average, reflecting the carbon-intensive energy mix (Annex 1.B1). Emissions per unit of GDP fell by 17%, but that was less than the OECD average decrease of 24%.

As in most OECD countries, CO2 is the main contributor to GHG emissions, amounting to 92% of total emissions in 2013, followed by methane (4%), fluorinated gases (3%) and nitrous oxide (2%). Consumption-based CO2 emissions (i.e. excluding emissions embodied in Korea’s exports) increased less rapidly than production-based emissions and represented 10.9 tonnes per capita in 2011, slightly below the OECD average of 11.1 tonnes. Korea is among the few net exporters of CO2 emissions in the OECD, reflecting its carbon-intensive, export-oriented economy (Annex 1.B2; OECD, 2015c). Methane emissions decreased by 14% over 1990-2013 and remained stable from 2000, due to waste reduction measures and a decline in the amount of agricultural land (MOE, 2016b).

Manufacturing and energy industries accounted for the bulk of GHG emissions in 2013, followed by transport, industrial processes, agriculture and waste management. Emissions from fuel combustion amounted to 86% of total emissions, of which 45% was emitted by energy industries and 31% by manufacturing and construction. Emissions from all major sources increased between 2000 and 2013 (Figure 1.6) due to rapid economic growth, particularly the expansion of energy-intensive industries such as steel and thermal power generation (MOE, 2016b).

Figure 1.6. GHG emissions are decoupled from economic growth but continue to increase

Climate change outlook

Korea is more vulnerable than many OECD countries to climate change. While the world temperature increased by 0.8°C in the past century, Korea’s temperature increased by 1.2°C. The Meteorological Administration forecasts that if GHG emissions continue at their current level, temperatures will rise by 0.63°C every ten years, 1.6 times faster than over the past 30 years. The increase could be halved if GHG reduction policies were fully implemented. However, even if reduction targets are achieved, average annual precipitation is expected to increase by about 6% until 2040, and about 16% to 2100 (about four times the global average increase). Water levels are expected to rise by at least 53 cm on the south and west coasts and 74 cm on the east coast, and the subtropical climate of the south coast is expected to gradually move north. The frequency of extreme weather will increase rapidly, heat waves will last at least 1.8 times longer and tropical nights will nearly quintuple in number (MOE, 2015).

Climate change is already having a significant negative impact on biodiversity and ecosystems in Korea, with repercussions for human health, safety and food production. Rising temperatures are transforming ecosystems from temperate to subtropical, reducing pine forest cover and favouring invasive species. Natural disasters, ecosystem disturbance, disease and pests are increasing, land acidification is worsening and agricultural production is declining in both quantity and quality (MOE, 2014b). The rise in water temperature and changes in ocean currents have driven tropical marine organisms to migrate to Korean seas, leading to the disappearance of native organisms. Changes in temperature and rainfall are influencing water quality: reduced rainfall during the dry season is decreasing the dilution of point source pollutants, and increased rainfall during the wet season is raising diffuse pollution, exacerbating nutrient loads and algal blooms in lakes and rivers. The Statistical Research Institute estimated the total amount of damage resulting from extreme weather such as typhoons, heavy rainfall and heavy snow at KRW 20 trillion over 1997-2006 (MOE, 2014b). Climate change adaptation measures are thus essential to face future challenges.

Climate targets appear hard to achieve

In 2009, although it was not one of the 38 Annex I countries with a mandatory commitment under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce emissions, Korea set a mid-term goal of reducing GHG emissions by 30% below the business-as-usual level by 2020. In absolute terms, this represented an increase of 87% above 1990 emission levels (Figure 1.6). In 2015, the government committed to reduce GHG emissions by 37% below the business-as-usual level (+83% above 1990 emission levels) by 2030 in its intended nationally determined contribution, and the enforcement decree of the Framework Act on Low Carbon Green Growth was modified accordingly. Of this target, 25.7% of reductions would be met domestically and the remaining 11.3% through international markets. In practice, the 2030 target postpones the 2020 target. Although it is demanding in terms of reducing emission intensity, it implies a modest decline in emissions by international comparison (BNEF, 2015; Climate Action Tracker, 2015).

After announcing its 2020 emission reduction target, Korea took steps to institutionalise its emission reduction efforts. The Low Carbon, Green Growth Act enshrined the 2020 target in law in April 2010. A few months later, the Greenhouse Gas Inventory & Research Center of Korea was established to manage data on GHG emissions through the web-based National GHG Management System, which was key to establishment of the related Target Management Scheme and Emissions Trading Scheme (Chapter 3). The government established emission reduction targets by sector in 2011, detailing how they would be achieved with a Roadmap to Achieve National Greenhouse Gas Reduction Goals in 2014. The roadmap, resulting from collaboration between six ministries, presented over 80 sector-specific mitigation measures. It is being updated to reflect the 2030 target. Korea ratified the Paris Agreement on 3 November 2016.

The policy mix implemented thus far is unlikely to be sufficient (Climate Action Tracker, 2015; Sonnenschein and Mundaca, 2015). The main GHG reduction mechanisms are the Greenhouse Gas and Energy Target Management Scheme (2010) and Emissions Trading Scheme (2015). They are bolstered by sector-specific measures such as subsidies for clean vehicles and low-carbon fuel, automobile standards, low-carbon building standards and a renewable energy portfolio standard (Chapter 3). However, they have not yet managed to slow, let alone reverse, GHG emission growth (Figure 1.6). As Korea’s annual emissions are already above the 2030 target, they must start falling soon. Modelling by the MOE indicated that emissions would peak in 2014, then begin to decline (MOE, 2015); data are not yet available to verify whether this in fact happened.

Korea has also been devoting increased attention to climate change adaptation. Its climate change plans first integrated adaptation in 2005; in 2008, the joint efforts of 13 ministries led to the National Comprehensive Plan on Climate Change Adaptation (2009-30). As with climate change mitigation, strengthened commitment to adaptation was reflected through the creation of a dedicated institution, the Korean Adaptation Center for Climate Change, and the incorporation of adaptation efforts into national law. The Low Carbon, Green Growth Act prescribed the formulation of a short-term national adaptation plan; the 2011-15 plan comprises 87 tasks across ten sectors. Local governments must also formulate and enforce detailed plans. However, monitoring and evaluating of adaptation measures are notoriously difficult due to, among other factors, challenges in attribution of results to adaptation interventions and climate change’s long time horizons and uncertain nature (OECD, 2015d). It is too early to know the results of the adaptation efforts, but it would be advisable to set a monitoring and evaluation framework to improve adaptation measures over time.

3.4. Air emissions and air quality

Air pollution is a major health concern in Korea. In 2013, the country had the OECD’s highest share of population exposed to excessive PM2.5 concentrations: an estimated 17% of the population was exposed to severe levels (above 35 μ/m3), though this represented a considerable reduction from 40% in 2000; 100% of the population was exposed to levels of PM2.5 above the recommended World Health Organization guideline value of 10 μ/m3 (OECD, 2016j). The OECD estimated the cost of the 20 424 premature deaths due to outdoor air pollution9 at USD 65 billion in 2013. Compared with 2005, this represented a 29% rise in premature deaths, and an 82% increase in the associated cost (IHME, 2015; OECD, 2016k). Projections indicate that the number of premature deaths could almost triple by 2060, placing Korea among the countries most affected by outdoor air pollution (Figure 1.7). In a welcome move, the government recently made the issue a national priority and announced a KRW 5 trillion (USD 4.4 billion) dedicated budget.

Figure 1.7. The number of deaths caused by outdoor air pollution is expected to nearly triple

Main policies and measures

Since the Clean Air Conservation Act of 1990, industrial facilities have been subject to emission standards and charges, which can vary with the severity of the air pollution where the facility is located (Chapter 2). Korea has for decades operated a smokestack tele-monitoring system, CleanSYS, to constantly monitor air pollutants emitted by major facilities. The first such system was installed in 1988, and as of July 2014 the devices had been installed on 1 477 smokestacks of 569 major emitters. However, these measures were insufficient to tackle Korea’s serious air pollution challenge, so national and subnational air pollution plans were adopted: the first and second Comprehensive Plans for Air Quality Improvement (2006-15 and 2016-24) and the first and second Seoul Metropolitan10 Air Quality Control Master Plans (2005-14 and 2015-24) to bolster efforts in the area most affected by severe air pollution. A key measure introduced in 2008 under the Seoul area plan was an air pollutant emission cap management system (Chapter 2), for which CleanSYS data provided a foundation.

Korea’s air pollution plans have also introduced measures in the transport sector. Emission standards for fuel and automobiles have been strengthened (Chapter 2), as have those for non-mobile sources (mainly construction and agricultural equipment). The government provides subsidies for the purchase of natural gas, hybrid and electric vehicles (Chapter 3), but the use of petrol and diesel vehicles remains cheaper in a context of low fuel prices. The government is trying to create low-emission zones, but stakeholder opposition makes this challenging.

The residential sector is a source of emissions, particularly from heating, cooling and appliance use. Many household boilers produce NOx emissions. Although the second national air quality plan contains provisions to support household purchases of low-NOx boilers, the central government has not yet made the subsidies available (some municipalities have moved ahead unilaterally). The government is working to reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), e.g. by installing petrol vapour recovery at petrol stations, but the measures need reinforcement. Other measures include prohibition of solid fuel use in regions that exceed or may exceed environmental standards (currently 20); mandatory clean fuel use in 37 regions for regional heating, cooling and power generation facilities, among others; and reinforcement of air quality monitoring networks (MOE, 2016c, 2015).

Emission profile

Korea’s efforts to tackle air pollution have borne fruit; since 2000, emissions of all major air pollutants but PM10 have been decoupled from economic growth. Emissions of sulphur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and carbon monoxide (CO) decreased over 2000-12, but emissions of particulate matter smaller than 10 μg (PM10) almost doubled, and those of non-methane VOCs (NMVOCs) increased by 30% (Figure 1.8). Emission intensity of SOx and NOx per unit of GDP remains below the OECD average (Annex 1.B3, 1.B4).

Figure 1.8. Air emissions

Industry is the largest emitter for many pollutants, accounting for 71% of PM10, 60% of PM2.5 and 51% of SOx emissions in 2012. Industrial PM10 emissions had nearly quadrupled since 2000. SOx, NOx, CO and NMVOCs emissions also generally increased. These rises are due to extensive use of fossil fuels for industrial processes and combustion. Power stations accounted for 22% of SOx and 16% of NOx emissions, but the levels have steadily declined since 2000 (Figure 1.8).

As in many countries, road transport is the most important source of NOx emissions and CO (Figure 1.8). Levels of NOx emissions fell by 5% and of CO emissions by 39% between 2000 and 2012, even as vehicle registrations continued to increase rapidly. This achievement can be attributed to the abovementioned policies encouraging the use of cleaner fuels and vehicles (KEI, 2008). However, ships and off-road vehicles (e.g. agricultural and construction machinery) represented 16% of SOx and 21% of NOx emissions in 2012, up by 51% and 36%, respectively, since 2000. They also accounted for 12% of PM10, 17% of PM2.5 and 10% of CO emissions (Figure 1.8). This suggests that policy measures covering these sources need to be tightened.

NMVOC emissions increased by 30% between 2000 and 2012. As in most OECD countries, solvents are the main source. In Seoul, NMVOC concentrations increased by about 50% over 2003-13, partly due to the small number of substances monitored and the lack of control measures. The VOC control system is under review to increase the number of substances covered and to reinforce control measures.

The government set an objective of bringing air quality in the Seoul Metropolitan Area in line with the OECD average by 2014, and set emission reduction objectives accordingly for PM10, SOx, NOx and VOCs; however, only the objectives for PM10 and SOx were met. Estimates show that the Seoul area air pollutant emission cap management system did bear fruit, however, with NOx decreasing by 16% and SOx emissions by 41% for companies under the system. Nevertheless, emissions are projected to increase over 2012-25: PM10 by 4%, PM2.5 by 5%, NOx by 9% and VOCs by 18% (MOE, 2016c).

Air quality

Concentration limit values for most main air pollutants were established in 1978 and have been progressively tightened since. They are generally respected for SOx, NOx and lead, but more efforts are needed for fine particulates. PM10 concentration levels have respected the standard since 2011, but PM2.5 concentration levels, for which standards have been applicable only since 2015, are still high. Although NO2 and ozone concentration levels are under the limit value, they are increasing (MOE, 2016c).

Concentration targets for PM10 and NO2 were also set by regional and municipal plans. In Seoul, PM10 concentrations significantly decreased from 59 μ/m3 in 2004 to 41 μ/m3 in 2012, but rebounded in 2013 so the objective of 40 μ/m3 was not achieved. Only two of six regions met the target. Although NO2 concentrations had decreased by 11% since 2004, Seoul did not reach that target by 2014, but four regions achieved it (MOE, 2015).

Korea’s PM concentrations are exacerbated by transboundary particles, particularly from China. During pollution peaks, transboundary particles could account for up to 70% of Korea’s air pollution. Fine particles not only come from Chinese’s industrial sites but also include yellow dust originating mainly in the Yellow River basin and deserts in China and Mongolia. PM concentrations are higher in spring due to dust and sand storms (DSS) brought to the Korean Peninsula by winds from the west. Such storms have intensified due to desertification and soil degradation, partly caused by overgrazing and expansion of cultivated fields. Korea has been actively participating in regional co-operation to monitor and mitigate transboundary air pollution (Box 1.1).

Box 1.1. Regional co-operation to tackle transboundary air pollution

Korea has long been strengthening its co-operation with China and Japan on transboundary air pollution. Annual tripartite environment minister meetings have been held since 1999, with areas of co-operation including air pollutants and DSS. In addition, a policy dialogue on air pollution between technical experts was established in 2014. There are platforms for joint research and monitoring between the three countries; the Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollutants in Northeast Asia project, established in 1995, works on identifying regional air quality status and trends, and a joint research committee established in 2007 works on forecasting and ecological restoration in relation to DSS.

Korea pursues bilateral co-operation with China and Mongolia on air pollution and DSS. While Korea and China have had a Joint Committee on Environmental Co-operation since 1994 with topics including transboundary air pollution control, they signed an additional memorandum of understanding (MOU) in 2014 to strengthen co-operation on air pollution, DSS and environmental industry and technology. Through the MOU, a joint research group was established to develop forecasting models and share air quality monitoring data. Korea and Mongolia signed an MOU in 2009 to co-operate on DSS through, for example, ecological surveys and vegetation projects.

Source: MOE (2016), “Response to the questionnaire for the OECD Environmental Performance Review of Korea”.

4. Transition to a resource-efficient economy

4.1. Material consumption

Domestic material consumption (DMC)11 grew by 25% over 2000-13. It has fluctuated since 2004 while GDP has continued to increase rapidly, resulting in an overall 34% improvement in material productivity (the amount of economic value generated per unit of material used) (Figure 1.9). With DMC of about 852 million tonnes in 2013, Korea is a resource-intense economy due to the predominance of heavy industry and a dynamic construction sector. However, per capita DMC, although it has increased since 2000, remained below the OECD average.

Figure 1.9. Material productivity increases

Although their share had slightly declined since 2000, construction minerals still accounted for half of DMC in 2010, higher than in most OECD countries, followed by fossil fuels (31%), which registered the largest increase over the period. Biomass (9%), metals (6%), wood and industry minerals make up the remainder (Figure 1.9). Korea is almost entirely dependent on imports for fossil fuels, metals and wood, while construction minerals are more easily available domestically.

4.2. Waste management

Waste by sector

Rapid industrialisation and urbanisation in Korea have led to mass production and consumption, resulting in widespread material prosperity. At the same time, however, the amount of waste generated has rapidly increased and waste treatment has become more difficult (MOE, 2014a).

Korea generated more than 146 million tonnes of primary waste12 in 2014, or 2 910 kg per capita. Primary waste generation increased by 71% between 2000 and 2014, almost keeping pace with economic activity (+74%). As in many countries, the construction sector is responsible for the largest share (48%), followed by manufacturing (28%), particularly using basic metals (17%). Households account for 11%, energy production for 6%, and water supply and waste management for 5% (Figure 1.10; MOE, 2016a).

Figure 1.10. Waste generation has increased in line with economic activity

While waste generation from manufacturing was stable over 2000-14, construction waste more than doubled due to major infrastructure and other projects, such as residential buildings to address the housing shortage and the country’s first high-speed railway (MOE, 2016a).

In 2014, 84% of waste was recovered, 9% was sent to landfill and 6% was incinerated (MOE, 2016a). For construction waste, 97% was recovered, mainly through backfilling and mounding; only 32% was recycled into high value added resources such as aggregates and asphalt. The government aimed to raise this to 46% by 2016 (MOE, 2015).

A Business Waste Reduction Programme introduced in 1996 imposes mandatory reduction targets on big enterprises and encourages voluntary reduction. An evaluation showed that in 2012, waste generation from businesses targeted by the programme increased less rapidly than the related production output. Extended producer responsibility was introduced in 2003 to promote reduction, reuse and recycling. Its coverage, initially mainly addressing packaging waste, has been progressively extended to other types, such as waste electrical and electronic equipment. As a result, the amounts recycled have more than doubled since 2000 (MOE, 2015, 2016a).

Municipal waste

Generation of municipal waste increased by 7% between 2000 and 2014, showing considerable decoupling from final private consumption, which rose by 52%. Per capita, municipal waste generation was 361 kg in 2014, much lower than the OECD average of 516 kg. Over 2000-14, the share of municipal waste sent to landfill decreased from 47% to 16%, while the share of material recovery13 rose from 41% to 59%. These achievements can be attributed to the volume-based waste fee system adopted in 1995, which imposes charges proportional to the amount of non-recyclable waste generated (Figure 1.10).

Food waste generation peaked in 2008, and has since fallen every year. In 2014, it accounted for 27% of municipal waste. Korea set reduction and recovery targets through the Comprehensive Measure for Reducing Food Waste, as a result of which 96% was recycled into feed, compost and fuel for electricity production in 2014 (MOE, 2016c).

Hazardous waste

Hazardous waste generation increased by 73% over 2000-14. The largest share, 24%, is mixed waste containing hazardous substances, followed by waste from production and use of organic solvents, mainly in the petrochemical industry (23%), and waste oils, emulsions or mixtures (20%). In 2014, 57% of hazardous waste was recycled (up from 50% in 2000), while 19% was still landfilled (MOE, 2016c).

Korea operates a waste charging system in which manufacturers and importers pay for the disposal of waste containing hazardous substances. In addition, a waste management system called Allbaro, in which transboundary exchanges of hazardous waste are tracked electronically, has been extended to cover all industrial waste (MOE, 2015).

4.3. Agriculture

The Korean agriculture, forestry and fishing sector is labour intensive (accounting for 2% of GDP but 6% of employment), reflecting a predominantly small-scale farming system. The real net value of agricultural production was stable during the review period despite a decline in the surface area dedicated to agriculture and in irrigated land, by about 10% each (FAO, 2016). Output was stable because, while cereal production fell by 22% and other crops by 11%, livestock production rose by 18% and non-food output was up by 56% (FAO, 2016). Farming is dominated by rice: paddies accounted for 55% of the cultivated area in 2014, down from 61% in 2003 (MAFRA, 2014, 2015).

Intensive agriculture is a major threat to ecosystems and biodiversity and is an important source of water, air and land pollution. Korean intensity of commercial fertiliser use14 is among the highest in the OECD. Livestock density is the second highest after the Netherlands (Annexe 1.C3). Apparent consumption of nitrogen and phosphate fertilisers decreased more than crop production, resulting in a relative decoupling. Pesticide use per hectare of agricultural land is also among the highest in the OECD, but declined during the review period. The available information shows that overall nitrogen and phosphorus surpluses have decreased since 2000, although livestock-related surpluses rose along with livestock production (FAO, 2016; OECD, 2013; MAFRA, 2015). Organic farming is barely developed, accounting for 1.5% of agricultural land in 2012, below the OECD average of 2.2% (OECD, 2015f).

5. Managing the natural asset base

5.1. Physical context and land use

Korea is a relatively small, mountainous peninsula with over 3 200 islands and total land area of about 100 000 km2. Surrounded by three seas, it has a temperate climate with wide variations in temperature and rainfall. The peninsula is largely divided into highland in the east and lowland in the west. Mountains cover about 64% of the territory, leaving limited areas for human settlement. Together with coasts and forests, they provide an important habitat for Korea’s rich biodiversity (MOE, 2015).

Forests accounted for 64% of the land area in 2013, a much higher share than the OECD average of 31%. Agricultural land covered 18%, a decrease of 10% from 2000 due to declines in arable land and permanent crops, along with a 27% increase in other types of land use. Lost agricultural and forest land was mainly converted to artificial surfaces, leading to habitat fragmentation and biodiversity loss, in particular in rice paddies, which host various ecosystems and about 527 species, and whose area has shrunk by 17% since 2003 (MOLIT, 2016, 2015b; MOE, 2014b; MAFRA, 2015).

Built-up areas expanded by 51% between 2002 and 2014, far surpassing the 6% population growth rate over the period and reflecting rapid industrialisation and urbanisation: 70% of the population lives in urban areas, well above the OECD average of 49% (Basic Statistics). Roads account for 32% of artificial land, followed by permanent buildings (housing, offices, shops, etc.) at 30%, other built-up areas15 at 29% and factories at 9%. Other built-up areas almost doubled just between 2012 and 2014, driven by growth in railways and areas for leisure activities such as parks and sport facilities. Factory sites grew the second most rapidly over the past decade (by 60%), followed by roads (29%) and buildings (21%) (Figure 1.11; MOLIT, 2016). Rapid urbanisation is putting strong pressure on the environment and accelerating natural ecosystems’ deterioration. Ensuring sustainable development of human and economic activities while preserving the country’s great diversity of fauna and flora is a major challenge (Chapter 2).

Figure 1.11. Built-up areas have increased rapidly

5.2. Biodiversity and ecosystems

Korea has a wide variety of terrestrial ecosystems and rich biodiversity thanks to its unique topography, its geographical features and its climate with four distinct seasons. Its terrain varies from flat fields to high mountains: the Baekdudaegan Mountains form the spine of the Korean peninsula, from Baekdusan Mountain in the north to Jirisan Mountain in the south. Extensive forests host diverse vegetation ranging from warm temperate to polar. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea provides a unique environment untouched by human activity and hosting 5 097 species, including 2% of threatened species. Increasing demand for agricultural and other development in the DMZ is threatening this unique habitat (MOE, 2015; Harvey, 2012).

Korea also possesses rich coastal, marine and island ecosystems, with a maritime jurisdiction 4.5 times its land area, long coastlines and an estimated 200 coastal sand dunes concentrated in the west and south. Dunes play an important role in biodiversity protection, acting as a sand repository, protecting underground water habitats for rare organisms and serving as natural barriers against wind and waves. Along with the coastal landscape, however, they are strongly influenced by marine erosion. Since most coastal dunes can be used as beaches, they also face strong pressure from urban development, particularly for accommodation and parking. Human development is increasingly damaging marine habitats as well: while 78% of coastlines are natural, 22% are artificial, consisting mainly of landfills, land reclamation, and ports for residential areas and industrial complexes (MOE, 2014b).

Forecasts of terrestrial biodiversity loss are particularly high in Japan and Korea, where a 36% decline in species abundance is expected by 2050, far above the global average of 10% (OECD, 2012b).

Rapid, widespread urbanisation is the single largest threat to Korea’s rich biodiversity and ecosystems, as it has generally been accompanied by deforestation and resulted in habitat encroachment and fragmentation. It is estimated that wetlands have declined by about 20%, farmlands by 16% and forests by 2% over the last two decades. An additional threat to biodiversity linked to development is an increasing demand for recreation in natural spaces, which is damaging landscapes and putting pressure on species previously untouched by human impact. Another major threat is invasive alien species, estimated to number 2 167 in 2014, of which 18 are disturbing ecosystems (MOE, 2014b). Climate change and illegal poaching are also causing ecosystem imbalances and biodiversity losses.

Threatened species

Although the level of knowledge is incomplete for some habitats and species, the available information shows that in 2014 Korea’s performance concerning the proportion of species that are threatened was relatively good, compared to most OECD countries: 23% of amphibians, 16% of reptiles, 11% of mammals and birds and 5% of vascular plants were considered threatened (Annexe 1.D1). Some policies to protect and manage biodiversity are bearing fruit: for example, several indigenous deer species have become more common thanks to hunting controls. However, although captive breeding programmes for endangered species, such as Asiatic black bears, have been successful, large mammals such as tigers and lynx that used to be abundant have disappeared (KFS, 2016; MOE, 2016d), and the gradual reduction in wetlands threatens a diverse range of species (MOE, 2014b).

Korea’s Red List estimates that 2 177 species, or 5.6% of the total, require specific management plans, either because they critically need conservation or because they pose a threat to ecosystems and human well-being. Protection systems are managed by the MOE, the Korean Forestry Service and local governments, with measures varying according to risk severity. Korea has been restoring an increasing number of endangered species, reaching 28 animal species and 36 plant species in 2015 (MOE, 2016c). In 2012 the Wildlife Protection and Management Act identified 246 endangered wild plants and animals whose population is declining, an increase of 11% since 2007. Of these species, 21% are considered to be facing risk of imminent extinction: 12 bird, 11 mammal, nine fish, nine plant, four insect, four invertebrate and two amphibian or reptile species. The remaining 195 species are considered likely to become endangered. Conservation measures include a ban on the consumption and hunting of certain wild animals, the control of overpopulated and invasive species, restrictions on trade and exploitation of wild fauna and flora, and the establishment of wildlife rescue and management centres (MOE, 2016c, 2016d, 2014b).

Protected areas

Korea’s shares of both terrestrial and marine protected areas, as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), are low compared to most OECD countries. Under the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-20 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Aichi target 11 is to conserve 17% of terrestrial and inland water area and 10% of coastal and marine area by 2020 through protected area systems and other area-based measures. As of early 2016, about 8% of Korea’s terrestrial area and 1% of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) were designated as protected. National parks (IUCN category II) are the most widespread designation, accounting for more than 3% of the total terrestrial area and 0.5% of the EEZ; 1.4% of the country area is also protected under international agreements (included in IUCN categories): 22 Ramsar Wetlands, five UNESCO Biosphere Reserves and one World Natural Heritage site (Figure 1.12).

Figure 1.12. Protected areas remain below the Aichi target

Korea has increased the number of protected areas, which by national definition covered 15.5% of land and inland waters, and 2.0% of the EEZ, in 2016 (Figure 1.12). The national classification includes ten categories of protected areas, grouped in four classes: i) Natural parks16 (5% of the territory, 1% of the EEZ), ii) Terrestrial ecosystems (mainly Baekdudaegan mountain reserve, 3%), iii) Marine ecosystems (1% of the EEZ) and iv) Wildlife protection sites (5% of the territory). Jeollabuk and Jeollanam provinces, the two main estuary areas, account for 50% of the coastline and concentrate the best-preserved islands (61% of Korea’s islands), 80 of which are considered special islands with high-value habitats, where rare and unregistered species continue to be discovered (MOE, 2016c).

Trails and surroundings of national parks are under increasing pressure from leisure activities and tourism, exacerbated by the abolition of the national park entry fee in 2007. The government has accordingly designated special protection zones with restricted access for the most vulnerable or damaged areas. At the end of 2013, 139 such zones accounted for 274 km2 in national parks (MOE, 2015).

The Natural Environmental Conservation Act (amended 2004) added a key element to Korea’s protected area policy by establishing three core ecological axes: Baekdudaegan, the DMZ and the coastal regions with islands. These axes connect the mountains, rivers and seas to enhance biodiversity and ensure continuity of ecosystem functions. The 2010 Korean Peninsula Ecological Axes Establishment Plan outlines location restrictions, damaged area restoration projects and other mid- and long-term conservation measures, as well as the restoration of connections between ecological axes. In 2013, the government also launched a project to select and restore 50 disconnected or damaged sections of the axes (MOE, 2015).

Running counter to these efforts, however, are measures prioritising investment and development at the potential expense of biodiversity conservation. They include a push for land use deregulation as part of the government’s broader pursuit of deregulation, a proposal to put cable cars in national parks and a proposed law that would allow greater tourism infrastructure in mountain conservation areas (Chapter 2). Another challenge is protected area management; a recent study found that expanded capacity and expertise were needed.


Forests covered 64% of the country in 2013, a decrease of 1.4% since 2000. Coniferous forests are predominant (41%), followed by mixed (29%) and deciduous forests (27%) (MOE, 2015). Forest vegetation includes temperate deciduous broad-leaf trees in the southern coastal and island areas. Pine is the most widely distributed species, covering 23% of the total forest area, mainly in the alpine and northern regions (MOE, 2014b). Some 70% of the forest area is privately owned and 30% consists of plantations (FAO, 2015).

Forests were overexploited between 1910 and 1953, a period of occupation and war. By the end of the Korean War, almost half the forested area was destroyed. This led to serious social and environmental problems, such as lack of fuel and severe floods and droughts. The government undertook a remarkable reforestation effort through five successive National Forest Plans spanning 1973-2017. They restored more than one million hectares of denuded forest with fast growing tree species (KFS, 2016). Consequently, the forests are young and grow rapidly; about 32% consist of trees under 30 years old, and the growing stock increased by 77% over 2000-10 (FAO, 2015). In 2015, 56% of the forest was considered primary forest, where there are no clearly visible indications of human activity and ecological processes are not significantly disturbed. Some 6% of the forest area is protected for soil, water and ecosystem services, and 14% is protected for biodiversity conservation or included in protected areas (FAO, 2015).

The fifth National Forest Plan (2008-17) aims to further apply sustainable forest management and encourage forest industry competitiveness while maximising the public benefits forests provide, such as climate change mitigation and natural disaster prevention (KFS, 2016). In 2010, the value of these and other public benefits provided by forests, such as carbon absorption, oxygen production, air purification, watershed and biodiversity conservation, recreational services and soil erosion prevention, was estimated at KRW 109 trillion, an increase of 118% from 2000 (KFS, 2013).

Main policies and measures

Korea has put considerable effort into strengthening its legal and planning framework to manage biodiversity. For example, weight was given to its first National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) through the promulgation of the Act on Wildlife Protection and Management (2005) and the Act on Marine Ecosystem Conservation and Management (2007). Management plans have proliferated, such as two Wildlife Conservation Master Plans, the Master Plan for Marine Ecosystem Conservation and Management, two Forest Biodiversity Master Plans and two Natural Parks Master Plans, reflecting the fact that biodiversity issues are handled by multiple teams and ministries. To streamline and systematise biodiversity management, the Act on the Conservation and Use of Biodiversity was promulgated in 2012. Its purpose is to help enhance biodiversity by creating a national management system, promoting sustainable use of biological resources and co-operating in international mechanisms such as the CBD and Nagoya Protocol. Strategic environmental assessment was introduced in 2006, the scope of application of environmental impact assessment was expanded and efforts are being made to co-ordinate land use plans and Natural Environment Conservation Master Plans in the early stages (Chapter 2), thereby increasing the avenues for biodiversity to be taken into account in land use planning and development.

Korea has strengthened its institutional and information network to enable a more comprehensive understanding of its biodiversity and strengthen capacity in this field. The National Institute of Biological Resources, created in 2007, focuses on data collection and species identification, study and management. Building on its work, the National Biological Resources Integrated Management System database was launched in 2012. It was followed in 2013 by the National Institute of Ecology, which focuses on research and on educating the general public about biodiversity issues, and the Marine Biodiversity Institute in 2014, as well as other recent institutions with more specific regional focuses. More institutions are planned. However, the proliferation of institutions can come with co‐ordination and coherency challenges, which should be borne in mind as the government decides whether to create new institutions or strengthen existing ones. The government recently took a step to streamline institutions in this area (Kim, 2016). The challenge of co-ordinating multiple institutions is added to that of co-ordinating biodiversity policy among ministries. While a dedicated co‐ordination committee meets three to four times a year, room for improvement remains.

In keeping with its commitments as a party to the CBD, Korea has established three consecutive NBSAPs. In light of the Nagoya Protocol, the second NBSAP (2009-13) emphasised equitable sharing of biological resources and effective conservation of major ecological regions, species and genetic diversity. It led to the establishment of the National Species List, including all endangered species, as well as to expansion of the national protected area network, the designation of wetland protected areas and regular publication of the National Biodiversity Resources and Red List Index (MOE, 2014b, 2016c). Assessment of the second NBSAP found that the implementation of 6 tasks out of 24 was “unsatisfactory”. More efforts were deemed necessary for i) expanding and conserving protected areas, ii) conserving genetic diversity, iii) establishing a system to address climate change, iv) securing the use of biological resources, v) expanding education and professional training on biodiversity and vi) sharing information systematically (MOE, 2014b). The third NBSAP (2014-18) addresses some of these issues, focusing on reinforcing biodiversity conservation, promoting sustainable use of biological resources and strengthening action plans for ecosystem threats.

5.3. Management of water resources

Main plan and programmes

The fragmentation of responsibilities among ministries resulted in a multitude of management plans whose interconnections are difficult to understand (Chapter 2). The MOE has created 35 water-related plans, and is trying to streamline the four main ones into the Water Environment Management Master Plan for water quality and ecosystem health and the National Waterworks Master Plan, which includes tap water policy. MOLIT’s overarching strategy is the Long-term Comprehensive Plan for Water Resources (Table 1.1).

Table 1.1. Main water plans and programmes

Ministry in charge

Plans and programmes


Timeline and purpose


Water Environment Management Master Plan

Water Quality and Ecosystem Conservation Act (Art. 24)

Ten-year plan to achieve water quality targets and create an ecologically healthy water environment 2006-15, 2016-25

Comprehensive Mid-term Plan on the Ecological Stream Restoration Project

Water Environment Management Master Plan

Restoration of damaged rivers by removing artificial disturbances, maintaining integrity of ecosystem 2011-15, 2016-20

National Sewage Master Plan

Sewerage Act (Art. 4)

Ten-year plan for development and implementation of national sewerage policy 2006-15, 2016-25

National Waterworks Master Plan

Water Supply and Waterworks Installation Act (Art. 5)

Ten-year plan for development of national waterworks policy, effective water use and stable tap water supply 2006-15, 2016-25

National Water Reuse Plan

Promotion of and Support for Water Reuse Act (Art.5)

Ten-year plan for promotion of water reuse and facilitation of related technology development 2011-20

Basic Plan for Soil Conservation

Soil Environment Conversation Act (Art. 4)

Ten-year plan for prevention of soil contamination, restoration and purification of contaminated soil and provision of soil-groundwater nexus 2010-19

Water Demand Management Plan

Tap water saving through effective water demand management 2000-06, 2007-16


Long-term Comprehensive Plan for Water Resources

River Act (Art.23)

Twenty-year plan for stable security and effective use, development and preservation of water resources 2001-20, 2006-20, 2011-20 (revision)

Comprehensive Water Control Plans for River Basin

River Act (Art.24)

Ten-year plan for development and appropriate use of river basin water resources, river environment improvement, river basin flood prevention and flood damage minimisation National rivers: 2005-15 (established by the MOLIT) Local rivers: varies (established by local governments)

Basic Plan for Waterworks Installation and Management (Multiregional and industrial)

Water Supply and Waterworks Installation Act (Art. 4)

Ten-year plan to install and manage general and industrial waterworks in a proper and reasonable manner 2012-25, 2015-25 (revision)

Long-term Dam Construction Plans

Act on Construction of Dams and Assistance, etc. to their Environs (Art. 4)

Ten-year plan to develop water resources in an efficient and environment-friendly manner 2012-21

Groundwater Management Master Plan

Groundwater Act (Art. 6)

Ten-Year plan for development and use and efficient preservation and management of groundwater 2012-21

Natural River improvement programme

Restoration of river channels to near-natural state to improve aquatic habitat and amenity services


Comprehensive measures on non-point source pollution

Control of diffuse pollution sources (agricultural fields, livestock facilities, urban areas, roads, etc.) 2004-11, 2012-20


Rural Water Use Rationalization Plan

Rearrangement of Agricultural and Fishing Village Act (Art. 15)

Five-year plan for efficient development, use and preservation of rural water 1999

Comprehensive measures to combat drought in the agricultural sector

Effective management of agriculture water use to minimise the impact of drought December 2015

Source: MOE (2016), Water Environment: Main Policy Framework,; MOLIT (2016), Main Policy, Sectoral: Construction and water resources,; MAFRA (2016), Document and Resources,

Water resources

Korea’s annual average rainfall is relatively abundant, but renewable freshwater resources per capita (1 440 m3) are the second lowest in the OECD due to high population density. As a result, despite a moderate per capita abstraction rate, Korea is among the few OECD countries under medium-high water stress with intensity of use17 of freshwater resources at about 35%. The concentration of the rainy season from June to September, with large variation by year and by region, poses a major challenge for water management. In addition, steep topography and rapid urbanisation exacerbate the consequences of frequent flooding and drought caused by the rainfall pattern.

Aggregated national information on freshwater resources and abstractions is reported only every five years and with considerable delay, particularly for surface water abstractions. The latest available data underlying the key environmental indicator on intensity of freshwater resource use18 date from 2007. Such delays, which probably reflect fragmentation of the information systems set up by the various government bodies involved, make clear that further efforts are needed to integrate the water information system so as to better support water policy (Koh, 2014; Lee and Kwon, 2016). Public water supply intensity per capita (139 m3 in 2009) is above the OECD average (116 m3). More information is available on groundwater abstractions, which accounted for only 15% of total abstractions in 2007. In 2014, abstractions for agriculture represented half of total groundwater abstractions, most of it for irrigation. Agricultural abstractions have increased more rapidly (by 59% since 2000) than total groundwater abstractions (32%), mainly because agriculture groundwater is exempt from usage fees (Lee and Kwon, 2016).

Water use amounted to 25.5 billion m3 in 2007. As in many countries, agriculture is the largest user, accounting for 62% of water use in 2007, a decrease from 80% in 1998. Water for domestic purposes accounted for 29% and industrial usage for 8%. In addition, 10% of available water is designated as river maintenance water19 and is considered part of total water use, although it is not abstracted from rivers for intentional use. The total volume of freshwater used was expected to increase by 4% in 2020 compared to 2007, with increases in domestic (4%) and industrial use (52%) and a decrease in agricultural use (3%).

The Comprehensive Plan on Water Savings (2000-06) launched measures to expand water-saving devices and wastewater systems, restructure the water billing system, replace old water pipes, etc. Estimates indicate that the plan resulted in tap water savings of 930 million m3 between 2000 and 2012. The Comprehensive plan on National Water Demand Management (2007-16) was intended to further reduce water losses by covering all water demand stages from supply to use and reuse, with measures expected to save 1 021 million m3 of tap water (MOE, 2015).

Water quality

Korea is close to achieving its water quality targets for rivers, but falls far short of those it has set for major lakes. Surface water is mainly provided by Korea’s four major rivers: the Hangang, Nakdongang, Geumgang and Youngsangang. The first Water Environment Management Master Plan established water quality and aquatic ecosystem standards to protect health and the living environment: the overall objective was to achieve, by 2015, i) at least “somewhat good” water quality for 85% of river sections and 94% of major lakes, and ii) “very good” quality for 32% of river sections and 53% of major lakes. In 2015, 83.3% of river sections but only 65.3% of major lakes achieved at least “somewhat good” quality (MOE, 2016c).

Individual biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) and chemical oxygen demand (COD) targets were also established for 114 river sections and 49 lakes. In 2015, BOD targets were achieved for 75% of river sections and COD targets for only 8% of lakes (Figure 1.13) (MOE, 2015). Many Korean lakes are artificial, created by dam construction, and most serve as agricultural reservoirs. They are highly vulnerable to eutrophication as they have lower self-purification capacity than rivers and nutrients can easily accumulate. Eutrophicated waters lead to proliferation and increased frequency of algae blooms, resulting in higher costs to treat drinking water and water for industrial uses, as well as a decline in lakeside and riverside property values (MOE, 2015).

The National Aquatic Ecological Monitoring Program was introduced in 2007 to monitor and evaluate the health of freshwater ecosystems in the four major rivers as the focus of water quality management shifted from improving quality to preserving freshwater ecosystem integrity. It measures i) water quality, ii) ecological diversity and richness of aquatic organisms, and iii) habitat conditions for the reproduction, growth and adaptation of organisms. It evaluates biological parameters such as epiphytic algae, fish and benthic macro-invertebrates through the Trophic Diatom Index (TDI), the Fish Assessment Index (FAI) and the Benthic Macro-invertebrate Index (BMI). Habitat conditions are evaluated using the Habitat and Riparian Index (HRI or RAI) which looks at river flow speed, land use in riparian areas, artificial structures across rivers, stream channel conditions, etc. In 2013, 960 locations were evaluated, compared with 540 in 2007. Results were graded from 0 to 100 and assessed against a four level scale qualifying them as very good (A), good (B), average (C) or bad (D). Almost all rivers reached at least B for BMI and RAI, although habitat conditions have declined since 2008 and remained at the bottom of the B or C scales in 2014. The situation was more balanced for TDI and FAI: while the Seomjin, Han and Nakdong rivers reached B, the Geum and Yeongsan rivers have remained at C since 2012 (Figure 1.13; MOE and NIER, 2013; MOE, 2015).

Figure 1.13. Korea is close to achieving river water quality targets, but falls short of those for major lakes

BOD and total phosphorus (T-P) have been falling gradually in recent years. However, COD levels increased in three of the four main rivers due to increased chemical discharges and inflows of non-degradable pollutants. There are two types of pollution affecting BOD and T-P levels: point-source and diffuse. Diffuse pollution comes from unspecified locations such as road surfaces and farmlands, mainly via storm water runoff. It represented 53% of the BOD load in the four major rivers in 2003, rising to 68% of BOD and 59% of T-P in 2010. The predominant sources are land and livestock, which account for more than 90% of diffuse BOD and T-P pollution, and more than 65% of total water pollution. Point-source pollution is mainly from households (including wastewater), which are responsible for 74% of BOD and 61% of T-P point-source pollution and 28% of total pollution.

The main type of water pollution has shifted from point-source to diffuse over the past two decades. While the share of treated sewerage more than doubled, reducing point-source pollution, livestock production (particularly Korean native cattle, chickens and pigs) grew substantially, increasing diffuse pollution. In addition, the expansion of impervious surfaces associated with urbanisation has accelerated runoff and increased diffuse pollution from urban sources. Diffuse pollution is expected to account for 72% of BOD by 2020.

In 2004, Korea adopted the Total Water Pollution Load Control System, to manage the total pollutant quantity and meet water quality targets for watershed (Box 2.3). In 2012, the second Comprehensive Diffuse Pollution Source Control Measure (2012-20) shifted from pollutant concentration reduction to runoff volume reduction, and from post-treatment to preventive management-oriented policies. It is expected to reduce BOD pollution by 24.6% and T-P by 22.5% by 2020 from 2010 levels (MOE, 2016b, 2016c, 2015).

Water supply, sanitation and wastewater treatment

Korea achieved the 2015 target set in the National Waterworks Master Plan to extend access to public water supply to 96.5% of the population. When village waterworks20 and small facilities21 managed by local authorities are taken into account, the share increased from 87% in 2000 to 99%22 in 2014 (MOE, 2016a). In 2011, 99% of controlled purification plants and 100% of tap water facilities complied with national water quality standards, but 4% of the small facilities inspected and 30% of wells in mountainous areas did not meet the standards (MOE, 2016a). The number of inspected small facilities that failed to achieve water quality standards has been steadily increasing due to unhygienic locations or inadequate management (MOE, 2015).

Access to sewerage has improved considerably. In 2014, 93% of the population was served by wastewater treatment services, compared with 71% in 2000. In addition, 83% of the population benefits from advanced (tertiary) treatment, a remarkable increase from almost nothing (1%) in 2000. In 2014, the sewage connection rate was 99% in large cities but only 66% in agricultural and fishing villages (MOE, 2016a, 2015). In the latter areas, public pipeline sewerage is often deemed too costly, and wastewater is managed more cost-effectively by small independent treatment facilities. Local governments are responsible for treatment of wastewater generated in their jurisdiction. The 2007 National Sewage Master Plan established several targets for 2015, including improvement of influent treatment quality through maintenance, repair of 93% of the sewerage infrastructure, increase of the sewerage connection rate to 92% of the population and 75% of the rural population, and increased reused rate for sludge (to 70%) and treated wastewater (to 18%).

The main government measure to reduce industrial wastewater volumes is establishing and operating terminal wastewater treatment facilities. In 2014, 100 terminals for industrial complexes and 75 for agro-industrial complexes were installed. Effluent quality standards are applied on seven pollutants, including BOD, COD, total nitrogen, and total phosphorus. Standards for BOD, COD and suspended solids are stricter for large discharge facilities. Permission or notification for the installation of wastewater discharge facilities is required. Discharge fees are applied, and measures such as instruction, inspection and administrative dispositions are taken to ensure implementation of regulations (MOE, 2015).

The installation of livestock excreta treatment facilities with effluent standards is mandatory for livestock farms whose operations require authorisation or registration. In 2013, 87 large facilities were operating and 34 smaller facilities were being installed or expanded. As a result, 89% of livestock waste was composted in 2012. In addition, eight biogas plants producing energy from livestock waste were operating in 2014, with seven more planned (MOE, 2015).

Recommendations on climate change, air management and environmental information

Climate change

  • Formulate a sector-by-sector roadmap with emission reduction goals and detailed measures to implement the 2030 GHG emission reduction target. Set intermediate steps to track progress towards the targeted path and adjust measures if necessary.

  • Revise energy plans to ensure they are consistent with fulfilment of international climate change commitments.

Air quality management

  • Consider introducing air pollutant emission cap management systems in areas with large industrial complexes outside the Seoul Metropolitan Area; continue tightening SOx and NOx emissions caps in the Seoul Metropolitan Area.

  • Strengthen vehicle emission standards, narrowing the gap between testing conditions and on-road results.

  • Pursue efforts to introduce low emission zones in areas affected by severe air pollution.

  • Pursue regional co-operation to tackle transboundary air pollution.

Environmental information

  • Strengthen efforts to establish a comprehensive and coherent water information system to better support national water policy; update information on freshwater resources and abstractions at national level more regularly.

  • Improve knowledge of air pollution sources (domestic vs. transboundary) and of the impact of each upon health.


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Annex 1.A. Energy and transport data
Figure 1.A1. Energy structure and intensity

Figure 1.A2. Road transport

Annex 1.B. Climate change and air pollution data
Figure 1.B1. GHG emissions and intensity

Figure 1.B2. CO2 emissions and intensity

Figure 1.B3. SOx emissions and intensity

Figure 1.B4. NOx emissions and intensity

Figure 1.B5. PM2.5 emissions and intensity

Annex 1.C. Waste and resource management data
Figure 1.C1. Waste generation and management

Figure 1.C2. Material consumption and productivity

Figure 1.C3. Agricultural inputs and livestock density

Annex 1.D. Biodiversity and water data
Figure 1.D1. Fish catches and threatened species

Figure 1.D2. Water abstraction and wastewater treatment


← 1. The statistical data for Israel are supplied by and under the responsibility of the relevant Israeli authorities. The use of such data by the OECD is without prejudice to the status of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank under the terms of international law.

← 2. Including ISIC rev.4. Division 26 (Manufacture of computer, electronic and optical products) and Section J (Information and communication services).

← 3. Measured as urban population weighted average of annual concentrations of PM10 and subjective appreciation of water quality.

← 4. Population aged 65 and over.

← 5. Population aged 15-64.

← 6. It is based on a different estimation methodology and includes some non-renewable waste (such as industrial waste and waste gas) and “new” sources such as fuel cells.

← 7. Measures based on value expressed in passenger-kilometres.

← 8. Measures based on value expressed in tonne-kilometres.

← 9. Measured as the number of deaths from ambient air pollution multiplied by the value of a statistical life, which is calculated as an aggregation of individuals’ willingness to pay to secure a marginal reduction in the risk of premature death (OECD, 2016d).

← 10. The Seoul Metropolitan Area comprises Seoul, Incheon and 24 cities in Gyeonggi-do.

← 11. DMC is the sum of domestic raw material extraction used by an economy and its physical trade balance (imports minus exports of domestic raw materials and manufactured products).

← 12. Primary waste excludes residues from treatment operations (secondary waste).

← 13. Including material recycling, composting and incineration with energy recovery.

← 14. Expressed as apparent consumption of nitrogen and phosphate fertilisers (in active ingredients) per hectare of agricultural land.

← 15. Schools, parking lots, gas stations, warehouses, railways, consolidated river/stream banks, fish farms, water supply sites, parks, sport and recreation sites/areas, religious sites, historic sites, cemeteries and miscellaneous areas.

← 16. Natural parks are designated to protect natural ecosystems, breathtaking natural scenery or cultural heritage.

← 17. Gross freshwater abstractions in total renewable resources.

← 18. Intensity of freshwater resource use is one of the ten key environmental indicators endorsed in 2001 by OECD Environment Ministers for public information and communication.

← 19. Based on “the minimum flow rate” needed for normal ecosystem functioning and river state, considering water use for households, industry, agriculture, environment, hydropower generation, water transport, etc. (River Act, Article 51).

← 20. Water supply system serving 100 to 2 500 customers and supplying 20 m3 to 500 m3/day.

← 21. Constructed and operated by residents, each one serves fewer than 100 customers or less than 20 m3 a day.

← 22. This share drops to 97% when considering village waterworks meeting national standards, or to 96% when including national (multiregional) waterworks only.