Rail News


September 09 , 2021

Railways' contribution to carbon neutrality

The Korea Times 
2021-July-15 (South Korea)

The 127th anniversary of National Railroad Day was celebrated on June 28 at the Millennium Hilton Hotel, with dignitaries from the railway industry participating. This year's event attracted attention with two commentaries.

One is Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee Jae-myung's comment that he hopes we will be able to launch an era of a "unified railway" running through the Eurasian continent from the Korean Peninsula, as soon as possible. The other is that Korea's railway system will take the lead in achieving carbon neutrality for the country.

Today's railway system is an environment-friendly mode of transportation, powered by electricity. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the transport sector accounts for about 24 percent of all energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. Among these emissions, road traffic accounts for approximately 75 percent of all transport sector emissions, while the railway subsector accounts for only 1 percent.

Railways are widely regarded as a sustainable means of transportation, with their ability to transport a large number of people with an energy efficiency much higher than that of roads. Class I freight trains are two to 5.5 times more fuel-efficient than trucks, while high-speed railways are eight times more energy efficient than civilian aircraft and four times more efficient than vehicular transportation.

As such, railways are a more environment-friendly and sustainable form of transportation, but they have been neglected in Korea for some time. Even though the country has recently set up a presidential committee on carbon neutrality to push ahead with net zero policies, railways are still considered as not so important.

The presidential committee has eight subcommittees ― climate change, energy innovation, economic industry, green life, process conversion, science and technology, international cooperation, and public participation ― however, none of these is directly related to green transport or railways. As a result, it is not discussing policies related to these two areas.

Therefore, the committee should set up a Green Transport Subcommittee to achieve carbon neutrality in the transportation sector with a focus on the railway system.

In retrospect, the Lee Myung-bak government also pushed forward a "green growth policy." I have experience working for the transportation division of UNESCAP from 2011 to 2012. At that time, I drafted out transportation sector policy, as part of a low carbon green growth roadmap for Asia and the Pacific.

We should start with the 127th National Railroad Day celebration ― although it's a bit late, it is a good thing ― to declare that railways will take the lead in helping the country reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Furthermore, the Korea National Railway has launched a Carbon Neutral Railway Strategy Committee to implement the government's net zero policy actively, which is desirable and indeed carries high expectations.

There are many policies that can be implemented to realize net zero in the railway sector in the future. First of all, it is necessary to expand investment in the railway system. It is a green industry, the most environment-friendly means of transportation and the epitome of "low carbon, green growth," and thus we cannot stress too much the importance of such an investment.

Next, there is the "Conversion Transport Subsidy" plan, which provides subsidies to logistics operators who convert their freight transport method from roads to railways. The plan, has been in effect since 2010 to establish a low carbon, green traffic logistics system, but it is not well-known.

The total amount of subsidies provided is not so much at 28.8 billion won. In the future, there should be a lot more publicity for the subsidy plan and an increase in the amount provided.

In addition, there is a solar energy project utilizing railways. This project will expand renewable energy use and implement low-carbon, eco-friendly railways to achieve carbon neutrality.

In April 2021, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) was concluded between the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, Korail and the Seoul Metropolitan Government regarding a "Solar Railroad Green New Deal Project," to build solar power facilities using railways. This project is expected to develop into a new growth engine for future rail systems.

In addition, we can promote the Green New Deal project to implement low-carbon, eco-friendly railways by utilizing facilities such as railway stations, platforms and tracks, and resources, such as old railway properties.

Lastly, we should further promote the KTX-EUM, a multiple-unit, high-speed, electric train called the "low-carbon and eco-friendly train," which President Moon took a ride on.

There are countless things that railways can do to realize carbon neutrality. In the coming years, the government should take the lead in recognizing the importance of the railway industry in the realization of carbon neutrality. We look forward to the strong promotion of green transportation with a focus on railways.

Ko Chang-nam is a former economic affairs officer in the transport division of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP).


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