▲ Seongsan Ilchulbong, or Sunrise Peak, is one of Jeju's environmental icons. Jeju is hoping such pedigree can help it become a World Environmental Capital by 2020. Photo courtesy Jeju Special Self-Governing ProvincePhoto courtesy Jeju Special Self-Governing Province
Every year, humankind’s remaining time left on earth is calculated by the Korea Green Foundation and the Asahi Glass Foundation, a Japanese environmental organization. The calculation is known as the Environmental Doomsday Clock and once the clock strikes 12:00 humans will no longer be able to survive on Earth.
To ascertain the “time” the two foundations consult environmental experts from over 90 countries including government officials, NGO activists, academics and businesspeople. They are asked for their opinions on the impact of humans on the environment and the ability of the earth to sustain us.
The results are expressed in the Environmental Doomsday Clock and any time after 9:00 is cause to be “extremely concerned,” and in 1992, when the survey first started, the crisis clock read 7:49. Due to the increased environmental destruction since then, it reached 9:19 in 2013. In short, we have stepped on the gas in the race to the apocalypse.
Real world consequences
New Orleans in the United States, which was submerged by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, has a unique natural environment surrounded by the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Due to expansion, “the home of jazz” has rapidly developed reclaimed land in areas once swamp and wetland. Even the offshore coral reefs in the neighboring Gulf of Mexico have been degraded as submarine oil fields have been exploited.
The coastal wetland loss lowered the capacity of the land to hold water, removing nature’s flood defense system. Not only that, but the destruction of the coral reefs increased the speed and erosive power of waves by clearing their route to land. When Katrina hit, the severity of the destruction left 1,700 dead and hordes fled the city, familiarizing the term “environmental refugee.”
Additionally, the Northeast Asian region has acute, and worsening, environmental problems, not least of which is “yellow dust,” a mixture of sand, dirt and pollutants blown from Mongolia across China and lingering over much of the Korean Peninsula. The Joongang Daily reports that 1,166 lakes and 887 rivers in Mongolia ran dry over the last 10 years due to desertification and drought.
The environmental situation in China adds to this mix with its increased fossil fuel burning and pollution associated with economic development. Beijing’s air quality reportedly did not meet safety standards for 146 days last year due to the high levels of ultrafine dust particles.
The Katrina disaster shows how serious the effects of human terrorism on nature can become. High rates of fossil fuel consumption increase CO2 emissions and contribute to global warming which is predicted to lead to worldwide catastrophe.
Global warming is not only speeding up the melting of the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps, causing rising sea levels, but is also increasing ocean temperatures which leads to more frequent and powerful hurricanes and typhoons.
Coastal cities such as New Orleans are already seeing the effects of such climate change, and it can only be assumed that future crises will become more deadly and frequent. If humans continue down the path of global warming, animal and plant species may disappear, ultimately leading to ecosystem collapse and ultimately threatening food security and clean water provision.
The big vision of a small island
To play its part in preventing further global environmental disasters, Jeju Island is working toward becoming a “World Environmental Capital.” It is buoyed by the fact it is known as the world’s only UNESCO “Triple Crown,” boasting three natural science designations.
• In 2002, Mt. Hallasan and portions of the Seogwipo coastline were designated as part of the UNESCO “Biosphere Reserve Program.” The two areas total 45 percent of the island’s 1,849.2 square kilometers.
• The second title came in 2007 when the Mt. Hallasan nature reserve, the Geomun Oreum lava tube system, and the Seongsan Ilchulbong tuff cone were crowned UNESCO “World Natural Heritage.”
• To make up the “Triple Crown,” the Global Geoparks Network added nine sites on Jeju Island in 2010. Affiliated with UNESCO, another three sites have since been added to the Geopark taking the total sites to 12, with a number of Geotrails.
During the 2012 World Conservation Congress (WCC), hosted on the island, Jeju’s natural and ecological environment came into the global spotlight. This inspired the vision to make Jeju a “World Environmental Capital.”
In a sign of the progress made, Jeju Special Self-Governing Province and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) signed an agreement last January to collaborate on seven environmental projects such as preserving the Gotjawal forest, Jeju’s unique volcanic rock woodland known as the “lungs of Jeju.”
The province hasn’t stopped there. Last March, Jeju hosted the world’s first “International Electric Vehicle Expo” in order promote the use of electric vehicles (EVs). The expo welcomed over 50,000 visitors and was reported on around the world.
Currently, Jeju Island boasts the highest EV use in Korea and as part of its “Carbon Free Island” goal, aims to make all vehicles — around 300,000 — EVs by 2030. The big ambition of this small island can contribute to reducing carbon emissions and combating global warming.
There are other environmentally friendly projects being experimented with on Jeju. For example, the Smart-Grid Testbed conducts research into renewable energy infrastructure and there is widespread testing of land and sea-based wind farms. Not least of which is Gapado, an outlying islet of Jeju. All of the island’s energy is now provided by the sun and wind and only EVs are permitted.
However, the real test of Jeju’s environmental vision is whether it can make positive changes to Jeju people’s everyday lives. Without the support of the whole community, Jeju’s big vision will struggle to become even a small reality.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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