The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the DPRK, or “North Korea”) rarely provides direct official information on its energy sector, and the data that are often provided need to be interpreted with care.

In our over 20 years of undertaking analyses of the DPRK energy sector, we have grown accustomed to using indirect data, estimates, and comparisons with other nations using similar technologies to assemble coherent—though doubtless not entirely accurate—quantitative estimates of energy supply and demand in the DPRK. Indeed, one of the authors of this article (Hayes) conducted the DPRK’s first official greenhouse gas inventory project with UN support in 1994, working with local counterparts, and encountered these very same issues at that time.

So it is an unusual and appreciated event when an official document presenting information related to the DPRK’s overall energy sector becomes available. The document, Intended Nationally Determined Contribution of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, dated September 2016, and submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is such a document.  

Information from the DPRK’s “INDC” submission provides insights on topics such as official policies on climate change and other environmental issues, on the DPRK’s intended energy-sector (and more broadly, economic) growth through 2030, and the DPRK’s “wish list” of energy-sector and other technologies—at least those with potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—for which it would propose to seek international assistance in implementation.

In general, INDCs are commitments that a country makes to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and/or institute policies to adapt to changing climate. For “non-Annex 1” countries, which are typically countries with lower per-capita income, INDCs are in part a statement of what policies the government of a country intends to implement on its own, namely, “unconditional” INDCs, and those that it would implement with financial and technical assistance from the international community (through various mechanisms. The latter are “conditional” INDCs, and to some extent constitute a “wish list” of policies and projects that a country nominates as candidates for international assistance.

north korea countryside photo

North Korea has in recent years taken great pains to prove its commitment to green energy I Photo by m•o•m•o


The DPRK’s 2016 INDC document begins with an introduction that acknowledges the guidance and leadership of Kim Jong Un, then notes the DPRK’s progress in the area of environmental protection, including afforestation, setting aside nature reserves, building small, medium, and large hydroelectric capacity, improving efficiency in energy supply and demand, agriculture, “zero-carbon architecture”, implementing renewable energy systems, and other accomplishments. The Introduction then notes the DPRK’s ratification of UNFCCC agreements over the years, including the Paris agreement of 2016, as well as the DPRK’s submission of its First and Second National Communications, in 2002 and 2013, respectively.  

In the second section of the DPRK INDC document, the methods used in preparing the INDC greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction estimates are briefly reviewed. The resulting estimated reductions are then presented relative to a “Business as Usual” (BAU) scenario of economic development and GHG emissions running through 2030, with a 2000 base year. Unconditional INDCs are estimated as reducing 2030 BAU emissions by 8% in total, with conditional INDCs contributing a further 32.25% in reductions, as shown in the figure below (taken from the INDC document):

The INDC document notes the DPRK’s need for assistance in implementing INDCs, including providing its per-capita GDP of USD462 in 2000 as evidence of developing-country status. It also lists eight national laws and strategies supporting the reduction of GHG emissions.

Ten different “measures”—actually, a combination of policies and actions—each with its own set of sub-policies or areas of focus, are provided, and constitute a fairly comprehensive suite of potential GHG emissions reduction actions.  

Following this list, a table offering 19 “Mitigation measures prioritized for conditional contribution” is presented, spanning the ten categories above. These are the key areas where the DPRK is seeking implementation assistance to implement emissions-reducing initiatives.

The document notes the DPRK’s need for assistance in implementing INDC

Although independent estimates of emissions reduction from each of these measures are not provided in the INDC document, in some cases enough information is provided that with, combined with our previous estimates of energy use in the DPRK, it is possible to make rough estimates of implied emissions reduction, which we attempt below. A similar list of individual “unconditional” measures is not provided.

The final section of the INDC document focuses on climate adaptation, noting temperature and sea level rise projections for the DPRK. A set of six categories of approaches to adaptation, and a table of adaptation measures by type of measure, are provided, along with a discussion of the DPRK’s needs for international assistance to complement its domestic policies to promote climate change adaptation. The DPRK’s adaptation strategy as described, though laid out in general terms, seems generally appropriate and consistent with strategies described by other nations.

north korea pollution photo

North Korea has a somewhat undeserved reputation as an extremely polluted country I Photo by Clay Gilliland


The values stated in the INDC document for GHG emissions offer some insights into DPRK official projections. First, and most basic, the values provided for per-capita and total GHG emissions in 2000 imply a DPRK population in that year of 22.7 million, which is just slightly higher (2-3%) than the value we assume for our analyses.

For 2030, the values provided imply a population of nearly 29 million in 2030, which is somewhat higher than the 27 million we use in our projections and future energy scenarios. For the year 2000, the INDC document lists overall GHG emissions of 65,714 GgCO2, presumably in units of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e), and presumably including estimates of all sources of GHGs. This is the same as 65.7 Mt (million tonnes) CO2e.

The DPRK’s adaptation strategy as described… seems generally appropriate and consistent with strategies described by other nations

Our most recent estimate of year 2000 DPRK GHG emissions from the energy sector alone come to about 40.5 Mt CO2e. Adding in on the order of 8.7 Mt CO2e emitted due to in-soil and above-ground biomass lost from deforestation, 2.0 Mt  CO2e of methane emitted from rice paddies, as estimated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), plus 0.9 Mt CO2e of methane emitted from livestock, 0.4 Mt CO2e of methane and nitrous oxide from manure management, and 1.1 Mt CO2e of nitrous oxide emissions from synthetic fertilizer use (all also from UNFAO), plus about 1.4 Mt CO2 from cement manufacture (our estimate—apart from energy use in coal manufacture), and the sum of our estimate of DPRK GHG emissions for 2000 would be about 55 Mt CO2e. 

north korea countryside photo

Efforts at afforestation have gained significant traction in state media I Photo by Clay Gilliland

The difference between our estimate and that included in the DPRK’s INDC document—about 10.7 Mt CO2e–is due in part to additional smaller sources of GHG emissions not included in our total (for example, high global warming potential gases such as chlorofluorocarbons and other compounds from industry, and emissions from human waste management), but we would expect those to be relatively small in total. The implication, therefore, is that our estimate of DPRK fossil energy use is about 20 percent below the DPRK’s own estimate for the year 2000.

The DPRK’s projections of GHG emissions for 2020—116.36 Mt CO2e—and projections for 2030, as shown above, suggest an-about 5 percent annual growth in emissions between those years, and about 3 percent annually between 2000 and 2020.

Our own projections suggest that GHG emissions from industry in the DPRK grew by only about 4 percent between 2000 and 2010, reflecting only a modest change in fossil fuel consumption between those years. Assuming that our historical growth rate for the first decade of the century is reasonably accurate, and that emissions from non-energy sources of GHGs don’t change much through 2020, the implication is that overall GHG emissions in the DPRK, based on the projections in the INDC document, would also rise by about 5 percent annually between 2010 and 2020.

If we assume that growth in emissions since 2010 through 2016 probably hasn’t been at the 5 percent per annum level, it means that projected growth through 2020 would be much higher.   

To get at what the level of GHG emissions growth indicated above might mean for the DPRK’s future fossil energy use, we start by assuming that our UNFAO’s estimate for total non-energy GHGs would not change between 2000 and 2030.

This first-order assumption probably masks two countervailing trends.  As the DPRK’s economy improves, one would expect that deforestation, and related emissions, to go down, as households and others return from using biomass for fuel to using fossil fuels and electricity as the supplies of the latter improve.

That the DPRK has seen fit to publish its INDC document in the first place suggests a potential opening for engagement with the DPRK on climate-related matters

On the other hand, as fertilizer use increases, increased building activity calls for more cement, and diets include more meat, we would expect the other non-energy sources of emissions to increase, thus our assumption that the two trends are roughly balanced. With that assumption, the DPRK’s estimates of GHG emissions in 2020 and 2030 imply increases in fossil energy (coal and oil) use of over 6 percent annually between 2010 and 2020, and 5.5 percent per year between 2020 and 2030.

Interestingly, the overall annual growth rate implied for 2010 to 2030 is not that different from trends in a “Redevelopment Case” projection of GHG emissions from the energy sector that we prepared in 2013. In our scenario, however—in which the DPRK economy opens up rapidly to the international community starting in about 2014—energy use in the DPRK grew rapidly from about 2013 through 2020, followed by lower growth as structural change in the economy takes place, with, for example, inefficient industrial plants retired and more use of electricity and gas in place of coal.

north korea countryside photo

North Korea’s methodology appears sound I Photo by Roamme


The DPRK INDC document includes a listing of 19 “Mitigation measures prioritized for conditional contribution”. Although these may not be the full list of measures that the authors of the DPRK INDC document estimate sum to 60.5 Mt CO2e in emissions reduction by 2030, it is interesting to undertake an independent estimate of the amount of emissions reductions these listed measures might add up to.

The DPRK’s estimates have indeed been prepared in line with established international methodologies

Our rough estimate of the sum of the 19 options listed yields year-2030 emissions reductions of 58.3 Mt CO2e per year, which is remarkably close to the “contingent contribution” total provided in the DPRK’s INDC document. Of course, there are many ways that the calculations of emissions reduction for each of these measures can be carried out, and it is difficult to judge emissions reductions without the full context of a “baseline” or “business as usual” scenario for the development of the DPRK economy.

The sum of these contingent contributions is also quite close to the difference in emissions that we found in our own modeling of the future of the DPRK energy sector when we compared a “Redevelopment” scenario analogous to a baseline projection with a “sustainable development” case that includes the types of energy efficiency and renewable energy measures listed in the INDC document. 

In our work, however, aggregate 2030 emissions were significantly lower in the “Redevelopment” case than are reported in the INDC document, though our work focused only on energy sector emissions.  

Although our estimate of potential greenhouse gas emissions reductions from the contingent contributions listed in the DPRK’s INDC document is admittedly “quick-and-dirty”, that is, quite approximate, the fact that they are reasonably consistent with the sum of measures that the authors of the DPRK INDC document come to suggests that the DPRK’s estimates have indeed been prepared in line with established international methodologies.

The fact that the estimates are similar, and that the DPRK has seen fit to publish its INDC document in the first place, also suggests a potential opening for engagement with the DPRK on climate-related matters. With the Trump administration’s recent withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate accord, it may well be up to other nations to work with the DPRK on climate issues, but the opening to do so does appear to exist.  

Perhaps South Korea’s plan to resume humanitarian aid with the DPRK could focus on those elements. A plan could focus on provision of energy services that directly improve human welfare, especially that at least start with a focus on small, quick-to-deploy programs which make use of relatively low-technology measures that do not depend on large-scale and massive infrastructure and would endure the inevitable cycles of inter-Korean and external conflict with the DPRK.  

This article was originally published as “The DPRK’s intended nationally determined contribution to commitments under the UNFCCC: a climate change window into the DPRK energy sector,” by David von Hippel and Peter Hayes, NAPSNet Policy Forum, June 05, 2017,