In Focus
April 2012

South Korea's forthcoming auto fuel efficiency standards: toughest in the world?

South Korea's efforts to go green have hit a roadblock. The adoption of a carbon emission trading bill proposed by President Lee Myung-bak has been delayed despite it being backed by the ruling and opposition parties in a committee vote on February 8.

The bill was – at one point – expected to be passed by lawmakers by early 2012. However, in a seating earlier this year, the National Assembly's Legislative and Judiciary Committee put off the vote, with the likelihood of a revisit in April when the assembly reconvenes.

The scheme will cover about 60 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions from Asia's fourth largest economy. The cap-and-trade set-up was to take effect in 2015, having been delayed several years from the originally planned implementation date because of pressure from industry. Industry bodies are concerned that the proposed carbon trading system will increase the costs of domestic companies and make them less competitive than rivals from countries without charges on carbon emissions.

At first glance, it might look like transportation will get off relatively easy in the revised emission regulations, for the most part. Chan Jong Park, the Korean representative of the International Emissions Trading Association, a Geneva-based non-profit that seeks to establish a functional international emissions trading framework, noted that some big logistics and transport companies, such as those with a fleet of more than 100 trucks, are likely to be included in the trading scheme.

But most of the vehicles on the road, new or old, will be excluded, largely for economic reasons. "It is very hard and costly to monitor, report, and verify the actual emissions of individual-owned cars and trucks," said Park.

However, the cap-and-trade system is not the entire picture. There is also the Target Management System, which is due to be introduced this year in preparation for the coming cap-and-trade program. The Target Management System is likely to set the baseline for the follow-on scheme, Park said.

The South Korean government has in recent times set emission reduction targets for each of the seven sectors of the economy: transportation, power, industry, buildings, public sector, agriculture and waste. The overall goal is a 30 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2020. However, that requirement was not spread evenly across all areas of the economy.

"The transport sector has been given the toughest 2020 target relative to other sectors, with a required 34.3 percent cut in emissions below business-as-usual level," said Park.

In acknowledgment of how challenging this might prove to be, South Korea's Transport Ministry announced a 10-year plan at the same time that is designed to produce the required savings. The mix includes improvements to public transport, the establishment of a green logistics system and the development of eco-friendly transport and logistics technologies.

For cars, the 2015 minimum fuel efficiency requirement is 17 kilometer per liter (kpl), which has to be met while producing less than 140 grams per kilometer (g/km) of greenhouse gases. A straight translation of the effect of a 34 percent reduction would imply greenhouse gas emissions of slightly more than 90 g/km and a fuel efficiency of nearly 26 kpl.

By way of comparison, regulations in the United States currently call for an average passenger car fuel efficiency of 11.7 kpl, with a pending proposal to double that to 23.2 kpl by 2025. Current Japanese standards call for just under 15 kpl, while 2008 Chinese regulations stipulate 17.5 kpl. Thus, South Korea could end up with some of the highest fuel efficiency standards in the world.

That could have an impact on any country trying to crack South Korea's automotive market via a significant number of imports, said Park. "All imported cars should follow the safety and environment standards of the country that imports those cars. That means American cars imported to Korea should follow Korean standards and vice versa."

Hitting those future fuel efficiency numbers could be a tall order and the local automotive industry is tackling the problem through the application of technology. For example, the Hyundai Motor Company, South Korea's largest automaker, showcased some advanced ideas at the 2011 Seoul Motor Show. The company's Blue Square concept car is powered by a fuel cell electric system that delivers a stack power of 90 kilowatts and fuel economy of 34.9 kpl.

Of more recent interest to the local market was Hyundai's introduction of its first gasoline hybrid model. The new car is a full parallel hybrid system, or one in which the gasoline-powered engine and the electric motor work alongside each other. The car also has lithium-ion polymer batteries, an advanced technology that is only now making its way into hybrid vehicles.

Hyundai also has developed a zero-emission electric bus in house. Plans call for a test fleet of these vehicles to be operated in some metropolitan bus routes last year, with mass production slated for 2013. Such efforts may pay off in more ways than just reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

South Korea has seen the number of cars on the road explode and the pollutants in the air soar, according to the Ministry of Environment. The country had more than 12 million registered cars in 2000 and that number grew to 16.8 million by 2008. To combat growing air pollution, the Ministry has cut the emission of NOx for petrol-powered cars from 0.25 g/km prior to 2002 to 0.031 g/km by 2008.

Beginning in July 2012, the country will begin the phased adoption of super ultra-low emission vehicle standards, a designation that originated in the United States. It typically means that emissions are 90 percent less than that of an equivalent ordinary full gasoline vehicle. High efficiency hybrids are examples of such cars. The impact of such cars on fuel demand and quality will likely track the same for today's hybrids.

Thus, the same technology may be employed to cut the emission of greenhouse gases and the more traditional NOx and hydrocarbon pollutants. However, this greening of South Korea's cars and trucks will not be a result of the new emissions trading scheme, noted Park.

"For the transport sector, other measures and subsidies will have an impact far more than the emissions trading system," he said.

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