The Inconsistent 'Coal-Free Pledge' of Korea's National Pension Service



This report examines the significant air pollution, health impacts, and economic losses resulting from the National Pension Service's (NPS) investment in coal-fired power plants (CFPPs). Despite declaring coal divestment in May 2021, the NPS has yet to establish a concrete policy to limit these investments. Over the past two years, air pollution associated with the NPS has led to USD 1.1 billion in economic losses and 220 related deaths. The report recommends a coal divestment policy aligned with the Paris Agreement, advocating for quantitative thresholds, fiduciary duty standards, and enhanced transparency for coal companies. Failure to enact these measures may result in further escalating damages and losses. 

Executive Summary

“The Inconsistent Coal-Free Pledge of Korea’s National Pension Service” analyses for the first time the air pollution, health damages and economic losses caused by the National Pension Service (NPS)’s investment in coal-fired power plants.

In May 2021, the NPS made a "coal divestment declaration," but two years later, it has yet to come up with a concrete policy to limit its coal investments. In the two years since the declaration, the total costs due to air pollution exposure attributed to the NPS amount to USD 1.1 billion (KRW 1.4 trillion). Meanwhile, NPS-linked deaths to exposure to air pollution from CFPPs amount to 220. 


The study found that if the NPS continues to delay the establishment of an effective coal divestment policy, the cumulative damage and economic losses is expected to grow further. Hence, it proposes the following coal divestment policy.

1. As a public pension fund, the NPS should actively engage in climate action aligned with the Paris Agreement 1.5°C target. 

2. The NPS must set a quantitative threshold of at least 30% by revenue (or power generation for power companies) to classify coal companies and progressively strengthen said threshold. 

3. The NPS must establish standards for active fiduciary duty and enhance transparency for coal companies.

Key findings

  • The National Pension Service (NPS) has yet to establish a specific policy to limit its coal investments, more than two years after coal divestment declaration in May 2021. Meanwhile, the NPS continues to invest large amounts of capital directly and indirectly in South Korean coal-fired power plants (CFPPs).

  • This study analyzes the air pollution and health impacts caused by the NPS’ investment in domestic CFPPs based on the CALPUFF modeling system, an industry-standard emission diffusion model. It also estimated the resulting economic losses.

  • Between 2021 and 2022, exposure to air pollution from CFPPs in South Korea is estimated to have caused approximately 1,970 deaths. Approximately 11.2%, 220, can be linked NPS through its investment in domestic coal power plants.

  • Health and economic impacts because of air pollution from coal in the country also include approximately 580 new cases of asthma in children, 280 preterm births, over 800,000 days of work absence (sick leave days), and 560 asthma-related emergency room visits in South Korea for 2021 and 2022 combined. Of these, the NPS-linked number of cases is 67 new cases of asthma in children, 32 preterm births, 90,690 days of work absence, and approximately 63 asthma emergency room visits.

  • The total costs of exposure to air pollution from CFPPs in South Korea between 2021 and 2022 amounted to approximately USD 10 billion (KRW 12.9 trillion) in healthcare and welfare expenditures. Of these, around USD 1.1 billion (KRW 1.4 trillion) can be attributed to the NPS’ investment in domestic coal.

  • In terms of regions, the largest health and economic impacts were found to be in Chungcheongnam-do, where the Taean and Dangjin coal power plants are located, and Incheon Metropolitan City, where the Yeongheung power plant operates. The annual deaths linked to the NPS for these plants were estimated at 26, 23 and 18 annual deaths in 2022. Furthermore, the total NPS-linked costs caused by these plants are USD 120 million (KRW 155 billion), USD 110 million (KRW 142 billion), and USD 87 million (KRW 113 billion), respectively.

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