Speech on the occasion of the launch of the Environmental Performance Review of Korea


By Angel Gurria, OECD Secretary-General
Seoul, September 21st, 2006

Mr. Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of the OECD, it is a great pleasure to present, here in Seoul, the second OECD Environmental Performance Review of the Republic of Korea.

Our first environment review of Korea came out shortly after Korea joined the OECD and it assessed the progress made between 1990 and 1997. So it is appropriate that we are now releasing the second Environmental Performance Review of Korea, covering the period since 1997, in the same week as we are celebrating the 10th Anniversary of Korea’s OECD membership.

After the 1997 financial crisis, Korea experienced one of the highest rates of economic growth in the OECD – averaging 6% annually -- as well as significant structural changes.  What has this rapid growth meant for Korea in its effort to achieve balanced economic, environmental and social development? Has it really been “Green Growth”?

The Review of Korea

This report examines the environmental performance of Korea, and it includes the combined efforts of both its government and civil society. The report includes 54 recommendations. These were approved by all OECD countries including Korea itself, following a formal examination earlier this year.

Such reviews of policies and of country performance are a core function of the OECD. We conduct them in several areas (such as general economics or education policies.) Reviews of environmental performance are carried out for all OECD countries. The aim is to help Member countries improve their individual and collective performance in environmental management and sustainable development. We also review the environmental performance of key non-Member countries. In fact, we are now preparing such a review of China, which should be of interest to Korea because of the many trans-boundary environmental issues in this region.


Since 1997 Korea has made significant environmental achievements on several fronts. I will mention just a few of them here:

  • Korea has reduced emissions of major air pollutants such as sulphur oxides (SOx) through the use of cleaner fuels (for vehicles and power plants), and cleaner industrial processes. SOx emissions per unit of GDP in Korea now stand at half the OECD average.
  • Water quality has improved, thanks to the adoption of a river-basin management approach and massive investment in wastewater treatment infrastructure of around USD 20 billion in less than 10 years. This has expanded the coverage of sanitation services from 45% of the population in 1995 to an impressive 84% in 2005.
  • In the area of waste management, Korea’s emphasis on the “3Rs” (reduce, recycle, reuse) has borne fruit. Despite rapid economic growth, the increase in municipal waste has been limited thanks to a new volume-based waste fee system and an active recycling policy.  In 2003, nearly three-quarters of all waste was recycled; this is one of the best rates in OECD countries.
  • Korea has also strengthened environmental legislation and introduced a number of economic instruments. Its environmental expenditure has reached over 2% of GDP, a relatively high level by OECD standards. Constructive public-private partnerships involving business and environmental NGOs have contributed to addressing many environmental issues.
  • Korea has shown environmental leadership internationally, by co-operating on regional issues (such as acid rain, marine fisheries, migratory wildlife), and by proposing ecological protection of the Demilitarized Zone.


However, Korea’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, as well as its use of energy, pesticides and fertilisers are among the highest in the OECD relative to GDP or area.  Looking to the future, Korea still needs to address a number of environmental challenges, while pursuing sustainable development and balancing economic, environmental and social concerns. The report provides many recommendations but let me mention a few:

  • Korea needs to further strengthen its international environmental co-operation, in the areas of protecting the ozone layer, controlling greenhouse gas emissions, and addressing marine issues. For instance, Korea’s CO2 emissions per unit of GDP are one of the highest in the OECD; 2 times higher than those of France and 1.5 times higher than Japan’s . 
  • We recommend that Korea should consider a green tax reform, as well as review the environmental effects of fiscal instruments, identify environmentally harmful subsidies and improve the use of economic instruments.
  • Korea’s energy and transport policies need to better integrate environmental concerns.  The country must further improve efficiency in its use of energy and materials.  In fact, Korea is one of the few OECD countries, which has not improved its energy intensity (energy use per unit of GDP) relative to 1990 . The country could capture multiple benefits from such improvements.
  • Korea should integrate water quality and quantity management, and fully implement its water reform.
  • Korea should step up efforts to move towards a more “circular” economy, by further reducing, recycling and reusing waste.
  • Finally, Korea needs to strengthen the funding and human resources for nature protection. This can be done if we treat nature, biodiversity and landscape as assets for recreation and tourism, as well as providers of critical public goods such as flood protection.


In conclusion, let me stress our three main messages: 

  1. Korea has extended much of the environmental progress noted in the first review in 1997, and has made further striking environmental progress as presented in this second review; congratulations.
  2. As the Korean economy converges with those of other OECD economies, it needs a commensurate environmental convergence. I am convinced that further environmental progress will reward Korea with the economic benefits of healthier workers, enhanced industrial productivity, and innovations in environmental technologies that could boost exports.
  3. Finally, Korea needs to strengthen further its international environmental efforts, particularly concerning climate change, ozone layer protection, aid and marine issues. 

Mr. Minister, let me thank you, and through you, the many talented and committed officials and experts from your country who have contributed to this review in a spirit of openness and transparency.  We look forward to working with them in your future efforts on this area.