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An ordinary guy who helped 'clean up' Korea

The IPCC's new chief, Dr Lee Hoe Sung, says he wants to focus more on solutions to climate change, including "innovative economic policies that can not only bring about reductions in greenhouse gas emissions but which can increase economic opportunit
The IPCC's new chief, Dr Lee Hoe Sung, says he wants to focus more on solutions to climate change, including "innovative economic policies that can not only bring about reductions in greenhouse gas emissions but which can increase economic opportunity and raise millions of people out of poverty".PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

New chief of UN climate research body contributed greatly to country's environment-related policies

Although one of the world's top carbon emitters, South Korea has also become a leader in pursuing climate-resilient economic development. Its transformation was witnessed - and partially pioneered - by Dr Lee Hoe Sung, an economist specialising in climate change.

The 69-year-old now has the world's climate blueprint on his plate, having been elected as the fourth and latest chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations body that assesses climate research and issues.

But he is humble about the achievement. Having served in the IPCC since 1992, the only Asian candidate beat five other mostly Western nominees to the chairmanship on Oct 6, including his closest rival, Belgian professor Jean-Pascal van Ypersele.

"I'm just an ordinary guy who studied economics and climate change," Dr Lee told The Straits Times in an e-mail interview. "Ever since I began to study economics, my focus has been on energy and climate change because I'm so interested in the subject. The more I studied, the more interested I got, I just couldn't get away from it."

Sources close to the IPCC describe Dr Lee, a father of two, as a private, quiet person who listens and gives everyone a chance to speak during meetings.

"He is quite a contrast to the other candidates, who were all very vocal, alpha male types," said an insider. "He comes over as quite modest in contrast and this modesty, together with his vision for IPCC, may well have helped him win the election."

Dr Lee, who was previously IPCC's vice-chairman, takes over from Dr Rajendra Pachauri, whose 13-year tenure had been mired in controversy. He resigned in February following allegations of sexual harassment.

Dr Lee's term will last up to seven years, and he is deemed by the media as a safe choice for the top job.

Since its founding in 1988, the IPCC has released five major reports on climate change and played a significant role in getting countries to pledge reductions in carbon emissions.

As the new chief, Dr Lee said he hopes to make the IPCC's reports more relevant and easily understandable not only to policymakers but also civil society. He believes his background as an energy economist will allow him to contribute significantly to the IPCC.

"I want to focus more on the solutions to climate change. These include innovative economic policies that can not only bring about reductions in greenhouse gas emissions but which can increase economic opportunity and raise millions of people out of poverty," he said.

Born in 1945, Dr Lee is the younger brother of former prime minister and three-time presidential candidate Lee Hoi Chang.

Though not as widely known as his older sibling, Dr Lee is an established figure in the field of climate science in South Korea.

After graduating with a degree in economics from the prestigious Seoul National University in 1969, he obtained his PhD in economics from Rutgers University in the US in 1975.

He became the first head of the Korea Energy Economics Institute (KEEI) in 1986, and also led the Korean Resource Economics Association from 1988, and the International Association for Energy Economics from 1999.

His IPCC chairmanship campaign was supported by South Korea's Environment Ministry, which said Dr Lee "made enormous contributions to Korea's development and environment-related policies" in his 10 years with KEEI.

South Korea is the world's ninth largest carbon emitter, according to 2014 figures from statistics portal Statista, but it has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 37 per cent from business-as-usual levels by 2030. In January, the country started a carbon emission market that imposes caps on emissions on 525 major companies.

Addressing the media in Seoul last week, Dr Lee stressed the need for countries to put a price on carbon emissions to help curb climate changes, and urged developing countries to play an active role in the IPCC.

In his interview with The Straits Times, Dr Lee, who also teaches at Korea University's Graduate School of Energy and Environment, said his biggest fear is people refusing to change their attitudes and actions, which could result in "severe, persistent and irreversible impacts that will surpass our ability to adapt to them". Greater use of renewable energy, reducing deforestation and cutting food waste can all help to lower carbon emissions, he added.

"By defeating climate change we can build a more resilient, vibrant world," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2015, with the headline 'An ordinary guy who helped 'clean up' Korea People'. Print Edition | Subscribe