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Wednesday, October 21, 2020
Yujin Kim is a member of Youth 4 Climate Action Korea, a movement of youth activists fighting for a safe future for all
SEOUL, Aug 12 2020 (IPS) - On 23 February 2020, the South Korean government raised the national Crisis Alert Level to the highest tier in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, we have witnessed what our society is capable of when faced with a crisis.
The government mobilised trillions of Korean Won for economic and social recovery, politicians continue to debate methods of aid for those who have been affected the most, and businesses have rushed to express solidarity for frontline workers. Seeing this makes me wonder why the same thing hasn’t happened with the climate crisis.
Securing young people’s future
Ever since I was six years old, I’ve dreamed of becoming an ecologist. I wanted to study rich ecosystems within the Korean Demilitarised Zone – the stretch of land that has divided North and South Korea for the past 70 years.
My dream is not the only thing in danger. Climate change threatens my generation’s food security, peace, health, social justice and physical safety. At this rate, we will surpass the “1.5ºC temperature increase above pre-industrial levels” threshold by 2030.
The damage to our planet could be irreversible by then, and today’s young people will have to face the brunt of its catastrophic effects. Unsurprisingly, young people have been rising all around the world to demand climate action to protect our futures, and Korea is no exception.
Youth 4 Climate Action Korea is a youth-led organisation which aims to bring the Korean government to make a just climate transition in line with the 1.5ºC warming scenario. Last year, we held three School Strikes 4 Climate in coordination with youth climate groups all around the world.
We met with government officials, including the Minister for Environment, and delivered our demands for stronger climate policies and greenhouse gas emission reduction goals. However, there was little action from the government, and time was ticking. We decided to look for another way that would force the government to respond directly to our calls and possibly legally bind it to strengthen climate goals.
Taking matters into our own hands
In March 2020, myself and 18 other plaintiffs from Youth 4 Climate Action Korea filed a constitutional complaint on the grounds that the government’s insufficient and outdated climate policies were directly violating our constitutional rights – such as the right to a healthy environment, the right to equality and the right to pursue a happy life.
The lawsuit passed the Constitutional Court’s preliminary review ten days after we submitted the case. If successful, the government would be bound by law to strengthen South Korea’s greenhouse gas emission reduction goals in line with the 1.5ºC warming scenario.
Although we’ve seen meaningful adoptions of our demands into policies, the major changes we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions – such as halting the construction of seven new coal power plants and committing to 100% renewable energy before 2050 – are still barely on the table.
South Korea’s current Nationally Determined Contributions – which set how much a country intends to reduce its emissions by – fall far short of what we need to uphold the Paris Agreement. In fact, if every country on the planet were to follow South Korea’s greenhouse gas emission reduction trend, global temperatures would increase by 3-4ºC.
As the 8th largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world (as of 2018) and one of the biggest funders of overseas coal projects, we must do better. South Korea recently announced a Green New Deal as part of its recovery plan from the Covid-19 pandemic. However, many parts of the plan are redundant or don’t signify meaningful cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
We are in a position where we have to build back from the economic and social damage brought by the pandemic. In doing so, we must make sure that it’s in a way that facilitates a transition to a low-carbon economy with social justice at its heart, with youth actively involved in each step. If we fail to alter the course of the climate crisis now, my generation will lose the world as we know it.
The transition required of us calls for unprecedented changes across all aspects of society, but it’s something that must be done if we are to have a habitable planet. And it is possible.
An increasing number of studies show that acting on the climate crisis now will have a much smaller cost than adapting to its disastrous effects in decades to come, such as irreversible changes in climate patterns and ecosystem collapses.
Moreover, researchers have already found that South Korea has the full infrastructural, economic, and geographic capacity to begin the transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050.
Involving the largest stakeholders
Us young people are the largest stakeholders in this issue, and young people’s participation is vital in helping to develop any equitable recovery and development policy. One way to do this is extending the right to vote to more young people so they can influence who is elected and whose interests politicians defend.
South Korea lowered its voting age from 19 to 18 in April 2020, but citizens who are under-18 are still legally and socially excluded from political participation. What’s more, over half of Korean high schools have internal policies that limit students from participating in ‘political’ rallies, and underage citizens cannot join political parties or even volunteer at one.
While the enfranchisement of more young citizens is definitely a welcome change, true political and civic empowerment must go one step further. The discussion about politics and civic engagement should begin not when someone turns 18, but from a much earlier age.
Avenues for direct political and civic participation should also be much more open so that young people can be better represented. In Korea, what’s even more alarming than the lack of political will to strengthen climate policies is the lack of representation for young people. Considering that only 13 out of the 300 members of the National Assembly are in their twenties or thirties, perhaps it doesn’t come as a surprise that the climate crisis is not at the top of the political agenda.
The decisions made today will define what kind of world that we, today’s youth, will inherit. So it is only fair that our voices are heard and our demands taken into account in the making of those decisions. What we want is simple: a healthy, habitable planet, just like the one our parents’ generation enjoyed. It is our fundamental right.
This story was originally published by Child Rights International Network CRIN
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