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OPINION: South Korea's emissions are falling too slowly. That's why we went to court

by Yujin Kim | Youth 4 Climate Action
Friday, 25 June 2021 13:37 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: People march carrying a globe-shaped balloon as they take part in a Global Climate Strike rally in Seoul, South Korea, September 21, 2019. REUTERS/Heo Ran

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

If our lawsuit is successful, the Korean government will be forced to bring its climate plans in line with the Paris Agreement

Yujin Kim is a member of Youth 4 Climate Action(Y4CA) in South Korea @youth4climatekr

‘Will it ever end?,’ I remember thinking as I stared outside the window of a cafe overlooking the Han River, which cuts through the heart of Seoul.

The riverbanks that had been my refuge when I was feeling stressed were nowhere in sight. It was day 43 of the 2020 monsoon season, and mud and debris had completely clogged the streets near my house. Uprooted trees and broken street signs rushed by in the brown current.

The rain chucked down for 11 more days, marking the longest monsoon season in history and leading to 42 human casualties and more than 8,000 people losing their homes.

Just the year before, South Korea had been hit by record numbers of autumn typhoons. In 2018, the country was hit by the worst heatwaves in history. One year of extreme weather events may be treated as an anomaly. But when century-old records are broken every year, that’s what you call a crisis.

Yet the Korean government’s response is grim and full of greenwashing, which has pushed climate activists to take different courses of action. Last December, Korea made a supposedly new pledge as part of the Paris agreement, promising to cut 24.4% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared to 2017.

However, this translates to the exact same numerical value of 536 million tonnes of CO2 reduction as was promised in 2016. This is nowhere near enough to stay in line with the 1.5 degrees celsius increase in global temperatures by the end of the century which the Paris Agreement aims to meet.

This is the main reason why myself and 18 other youth plaintiffs filed a constitutional appeal to the South Korean Constitutional Court in March 2020.

The lawsuit is on the grounds that the South Korean government’s inadequate climate plans are violating our constitutional rights, such as the right to a clean and healthy environment, the right to equality, and the right to life. If successful, the lawsuit will legally bind the government to strengthen its greenhouse gas emission reduction goals in line with the Paris Agreement.

The truth is that South Korea’s emissions are not falling fast enough, and this is definitely not the best effort the government could be making to save our future. Many say we are too cynical or idealistic, but we will not accept lousy excuses when the entire world as we know it is on the line.

Given the clear time limit to act on the climate crisis, it’s no surprise many people, especially youth for whom avenues for political and civic engagement are often limited, are turning to lawsuits as a final resort to hold governments and businesses accountable.

Many young plaintiffs are hearing the gavel ring in their favor. The federal court of Australia recently ruled that the environment minister has a duty to protect the younger generation from the climate crisis. In April, Germany’s constitutional court found the government’s climate goals to be insufficient and ordered it to introduce detailed greenhouse gas reduction plans.

If Y4CA Korea’s lawsuit is successful, the Korean government will be forced to bring its climate plans in line with the Paris Agreement, which is what should have happened five years ago anyway.

We are currently waiting for a hearing, which could be scheduled next month or next year. Every day, the physical systems of this planet are being pushed further and further towards the point of no return, and I’m terrified of what this summer will bring as the crisis escalates. But in the meantime, we will continue campaigning for change.

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