A year ago, Soyoung Lee was one of a crowd of climate activists demonstrating on the streets of Seoul in a campaign inspired by the global school strike founder Greta Thunberg. Today, the 35-year-old lawyer is the youngest member of the South Korean parliament and a driving force in the government’s green new deal, which aims to create millions of jobs in renewable energy and help the economy recover from the coronavirus lockdown.
Lee’s transformation highlights how much progress the global wave of youth climate activism has made in a remarkably short space of time. It also raises hopes that South Korea – a country long considered one of the world’s worst climate villains – will set a global example by accelerating the shift away from fossil fuels.
Lee was invited to stand as a candidate for President Moon Jae-in’s Democracy party in last month’s legislative elections. She proposed a green new deal in the campaign manifesto as a way to appeal to young voters. Winning her seat in a landslide, she is now part of a ruling coalition with a huge majority to push through any measures it chooses.
The government’s priority is to boost the economy after the Covid-19 crisis. Many business leaders and veteran ministers want recovery to focus purely on digital technology. But civil society and lawmakers like Lee have persuaded the president that it is possible to create jobs and raise climate ambitions. In an announcement this week, President Moon declared “It’s clear the green new deal is the way for us to go.”
This is a huge change from the South Korea we knew just four years ago when activists labeled them as the world’s biggest carbon villain for having more assets in fossil fuels than any other nation. And with real targets put in place to decarbonize the country, it seems this is just the beginning of South Korea’s transformation from carbon villain to climate model.