Biomass competing with solar, South Korea

Subsidizing biomass energy as “renewable” energy not only increases air pollution and worsens climate change, but also undermines truly green technologies like solar. We supported a South Korean NGO in a complaint arguing the subsidies are unconstitutional.

Old growth forest in British Columbia, Canada. Some of these forests are being harvested to make wood pellets that are exported internationally. Credit: Mary Booth

The South Korean government is heavily promoting large-scale biomass energy as a replacement for coal. We worked with South Korean NGO Solutions for Our Climate (SFOC) in 2020 to bring a constitutional complaint  on behalf of solar developers in South Korea against their national government. The case argued that renewable energy subsidies for wood burning as a substitute for coal were worsening air pollution, accelerating climate change, and stunting the growth of the Korean solar energy sector, thus infringing property rights and environmental rights. Joining the case as a claimant was a Canadian citizen representing ancient forests of British Columbia that have been harvested to make wood pellets burned in South Korea. The case was dismissed by the Korean Constitutional Court because the court did not recognise standing for the plaintiffs. In March 2021, SFOC filed a second case, with new plaintiffs and arguments concerning environmental rights. The court also dismissed that case on standing.

In October 2021, SFOC mounted a new administrative challenge targeting the government’s subsidies for biomass power. After a year and a half of debates, the court dismissed the case again based on standing, while acknowledging its importance to the public. The case has moved to an appeals court, with the judiciary delving deeper into the climate and environmental impacts of biomass. By questioning the green credentials of biomass energy, litigation in South Korea has advanced the transparency and accountability of national climate governance.