Archive for the 'Environment' Category

Canal Expansion Would Put Ecosystem at Risk

Photo from the Citizens Movement for Environmental Justice

Photo from the Citizens' Movement for Environmental Justice

SEOUL — HE’S A MAN WHO likes his running water.

While South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has officially dropped his plans for a nationwide canal he claimed would have revived the heartland, his government is continuing to push forward with similar schemes to resuscitate the economy. One is a major maintenance project intended to restore the banks of the country’s four largest rivers and bolster the sagging construction sector. Another is the expansion of an existing canal that would connect the Han River, which snakes through the heart of the capital, with the Yellow Sea.

Lee gained widespread popularity before becoming president as the mayor of Seoul for tearing up a massive arterial to make way for a park tracing Cheongye Stream, which had been buried underneath. But his latest projects have landed him on the blacklists of South Korea’s environmental groups. The Han-Yellow Sea expansion of the Kyeongin Canal has drawn the ire of a several in the area who lampoon the project as wasteful and unnecessary — not to mention ecologically disastrous.

Kwon Chang-sik, secretary general of the Joint Committee Against the Canal, recently told the Kyunghyang Sinmun that the Kyeongin Canal is full of standing water tainted by sewage. Were it to be connected to the Han River, oil and other runoff would flow into an estuary along the banks of the Han and destroy a habitat for seasonal birds. The economic benefits of the expanding the canal are nil, Kwon said. “Traveling the distance of the canal takes 30 minutes by car but would take 4 hours by boat.”


Lost Coast: Trump Wins Right to Build over Scottish Dunes

Dunes at Balmedie. Aberdeen, Scotland. Photo by doublebug.

Dunes at Balmedie. Aberdeen, Scotland. Photo by doublebug.

SCOTTISH COASTLINE, MAKE WAY for Trump. The billionaire developer won the right on Monday to doze a unique and ecologically sensitive stretch of dunes just north of Aberdeen, infuriating environmentalists and many locals while others cheered for new jobs. The land will give way to “the world’s greatest golf course,” along with a village of luxury homes and timeshares that will pay for the whole project.

A fisherman and his wife whose house sits at the center of the property have said they aren’t going anywhere; wonder if we’ll see anything like the resistance Wu Ping put up in China. Either way, it’s another sour lesson that despite the boost in “green” rhetoric of late, humans are still chiefly concerned with greenbacks. From the Guardian:

[…] The planning inspectors ruled that the damage to the dunes was outweighed by the resort’s substantial value to the economy – a judgment challenged by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

“It appears that the desires of one high profile overseas developer, who refused to compromise one inch, have been allowed to override the legal protection of this important site,” said Aedan Smith, head of planning for RSPB Scotland.

Martin Ford, the Liberal Democrat councillor whose casting vote against the development forced Scottish ministers to “call in” the plans, said: “This is a very, very bad precedent indeed and sends out a bad message about the protection in Scotland of our natural heritage sites.

“It appears to me to be a vanity project. I don’t think we can claim this is a nationally important development, and it certainly did not need to be built on this site.”

(Read Full)

Post-Olympics Beijing: Car Bans Continue

Driving at night, Beijing. Photo by Sonya.

Driving at night, Beijing. Photo by Sonya.

SEOUL — AS IT SWEATS OFF the last of the Summer Olympics fever, Beijing is beginning to shift its environmental policy paradigm. In the cold, smoggy light of morning, the city must now face all that it has become, and re-orient itself with the needs of its citizens.

Last January, I expressed hope that residents of the Chinese capital would take a cue from a planned ban of over a million cars during the Games and dust off their bicycles. While a two-wheeled revolution has yet to take place, the municipality has shown surprising initiative in keeping the skies blue (China Daily via China Digital Times):

Under the new traffic restrictions, 30 percent of government vehicles will be sealed off as of October 1 […] The remaining 70 percent of government vehicles, as well as all corporate and private cars, will take turns off the roads one out of the five weekdays as of October 11, it said.

The plan is not completely without its flaws. And while many Beijingers were willing to put up with public transport during the Games, the Daily says their patience has now worn thin.

While most people applaud the ban on government and corporate vehicles, the ban on private cars, however, has sparked an outcry from car owners, many of whom complain it is “unfair”.

“I need to take my daughter home from boarding school on Friday night,” said Beijing bank clerk Zhang Min, whose number plate ends with “0” and will be banned on Friday. “Probably we need to buy another car.”

The restrictions appear to be mostly aimed at easing congestion, with a nod to the effect they will have on air quality. But that’s a start. The city is taking a progressive approach by first cutting municipal traffic, and the kinks will get worked out as people and policies adjust. Auto-owning residents may be loathe to relinquish the wheel for now, but they might change their minds in a couple months when they’re able to drink in a lung-full of oxygen.

In Seattle, of Bicycles and Tree Assassins

photo by miss nikichan

SEOUL — IT WAS A GOOD THING that my life fit neatly into two large neoprene tubs. The apartment left room for little more. When I unfolded my built-in “kitchen” table from the wall, it blocked the entry way. The place had only one sink (in the bathroom) and my stovetop fit inside a small closet. But the floors were hardwood, and the location was prime: 42nd & Brooklyn, two blocks from campus.

About three years ago this September, I was hauling my stuff into this tiny space, picking up the pieces of a life I’d left behind in Seattle and bringing back some of who I’d become in Korea (this would be after my second sojourn in the country), along with a newfound love from Beijing: cycling. My future wife and I had rented old, rattling bicycles from a hotel during our trip there, and spent a day cruising around the city’s famous hutong. We stopped near Qian Hai Lake to eat peaches we’d bought from a local vendor, passed by the Drum Tower and wound up at a nameless tea shop on the west side of the Forbidden City. I felt a sense of freedom and ease that I’d long abandoned for a stick-shift.

One of the first things I’d done when I returned to the States was resurrect my old GT mountain bike from its resting place in my parents’ basement. Some oil and new tires and, behold! — it spins again. Not long after I moved up into my apartment, I could be found humming along the Seattle pavement, rushing unhindered by traffic through the city’s concrete veins.

My favorite route was the Burke-Gilman trail; a 20-some-mile path running from Fremont, through the University District and out along Lake Washington towards the northeastern suburbs of Kenmore and Bothell. For a good chunk of the ride, the trail was shaded by lush trees, a good number of which were deciduous — notably so, as much of the Northwest is wrapped up in firs and evergreens. As summer gave way to fall, I remember rolling over the brown pulp of jilted leaves, defying the fog and seasonal drizzle.

One particularly brisk morning, the orange, angular light of dawn cut through the changing foliage, highlighting the burning colors of the trees. It was absolutely beautiful, so much so that I nearly lost track of where I was going. Despite my pace, I felt frozen for a moment, my thoughts strung up between the technicolor branches.

The memory makes this recent news all the more saddening: someone is killing trees along the Burke-Gilman. The Seattle P-I reports:

Quarter-inch holes spaced about an inch apart were drilled around the tree trunks. Three poplars and two Douglas firs are dead, and two firs are starting to turn brown. The leaves on the poplars turned black, Mead said, indicating a rapid death likely caused by an herbicide.

“They were pretty thorough,” he said of whomever damaged the trees. “It would indicate a professional” did the poisoning.

The deaths of the trees reportedly came after unidentified persons in the neighborhood requested the trees be taken down.

While it may be true that in the grand scheme of things the downing of a few trees is minuscule, what is ultimately more depressing is the attitude this act reflects; the viewing of nature as an obstruction, and a disrespect for public space. It is perhaps a similar mentality that drives urban sprawl, that great plowing of humanity out where the wilderness would be better left to its own devices, the compartmentalizing of land into blocks of private property.

Here in Seoul, as in Beijing, greenspace is a hot commodity — my wife and I stumbled across a patch of grass the other day and took a picture as proof that it actually grows here. Without the luxury of yards, Seoul’s residents enjoy what little nature the city affords by picnicking next to the river or up in the mountains, and savor the few breaths that smell of pine instead of smog. In contrast, it seems that even some among the famously eco-friendly Seattlelites have gotten spoiled; perhaps they ought to go out for a ride, and remember what makes the city what it is.

Contingency Plan

photo by theogeo

SEOUL – THE OIL CRUNCH MAY MAKE begrudging environmentalists out of us yet. Though we haven’t quite converted our highways into bike paths, ballooning energy bills and prices at the pump seem to have the world thinking that maybe it’s time to reevaluate our auto culture. A recent story in the SF Chronicle says that more people are turning down jobs that are far away from home, even if offered better pay, on considering outlays for gas. A few days prior, the NYT reported that suburban life is losing its appeal — if only ’cause it costs more to fill up the Chevy:

Mr. Boyle and his wife must drive nearly an hour to their jobs in the high-tech corridor of southern Denver. With gasoline at more than $4 a gallon, Mr. Boyle recently paid $121 to fill his pickup truck with diesel fuel. In March, the last time he filled his propane tank to heat his spacious house, he paid $566, more than twice the price of 5 years ago.

Though Mr. Boyle finds city life unappealing, it is now up for reconsideration.

“Living closer in, in a smaller space, where you don’t have that commute,” he said. “It’s definitely something we talk about. Before it was ‘we spend too much time driving.’ Now, it’s ‘we spend too much time and money driving.’ ”

Ah, yes. The power of the pocketbook. Where footage of drowning polar bears failed to touch our hearts, surely a kick in the wallet shall succeed. Al Gore’s warnings might have been dismissed as left-wing scare tactics, but numbers are harder to refute.

As that hole in the bottom of our bank account grows, so does the our motivation to go green. Over the weekend OPEC President Chakib Khelil said he expects the crude price per barrel to top $170 this summer. About the same time, the government here announced its oil contigency plan (Kr). Should the price of the benchmark Dubai crude shoot past $150, South Korea will begin to more stiffly regulate energy usage in the public sector — including vehicle usage, air conditioning and lighting. In the worst-case-scenario of $170 plus per barrel, the gov will start to make such impositions on the private sector as well.

But one can’t help but wonder: will these changes stick when (or if) the financial pressure lets up? Will we have finally realized that our current lifestyle isn’t sustainable, or will we just settled back into that big old gas-guzzling groove we spent so much time wearing in? Either way, parking will still be a problem.

From Green to Black: The Environmental Movement Lost in Translation

calcutta traffic jam. photo by yumievriwan.

THE LOOMING THREAT OF GLOBAL warming and the ever-climbing cost of gas have made options like cycling to work, using mass transit and car sharing trendy in the United States. Green is our new mantra, however far removed our true habits may be from our ideals. But on the other side of the globe, entire populations of consumers that have long gone without are now snatching up cheap automobiles, and you can bet they won’t be slapping “carbon offset” bumper stickers on the back.

As car ownership increases in nations like South Korea, China and India, manufacturers are looking to churn out vehicles at even lower price points; today the BBC reported that Renault-Nissan has announced a joint venture with Indian firm Bajaj to create the world’s cheapest car, at an estimated $2,500.

And while the West and even internal environmentalists shake their heads at the possibility of millions of new drivers throwing tons of CO2 up in the air, the sentiment held in the Eastern hemisphere is perhaps best reflected by China’s “you first” stance — and these nations have a point. Many Americans still drive tank-like SUVs every day, and the US is the only developed nation that has not yet ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Indeed, what pedestal do we have to stand on?

But here’s the problem: with more drivers and more roads, these booming Asian nations are unwittingly fostering an auto-culture from which it will take ages to untangle. Right now they’re feasting on the fruits that developed capitalism can afford — the luxuries that Americans have enjoyed for decades. It’s understandable that Western criticism of these trends now would draw resentment and cries of hypocrisy.

The crucial point that must be conveyed, though, is that owning a car does not constitute the good life. Yes, we’ve been driving cars for decades, and the American road trip is indeed a sweet thing. But the majority of drivers are not freewheeling travelers blasting down I-90; we shuttle to and from suburban homes in frustrated bursts. Look at the faces of drivers inching along the snarled roadways in and out of Chicago, LA, Seattle, etc. Driving is convenient only when we have no better option. If American big business and city planners had had more foresight, we’d be riding on trolleys and trains (and probably wouldn’t have an obesity epidemic).

The mayors of Asia’s biggest cities should be regarding the difficulties the US is encountering as it attempts to move away from car culture as a lesson, a cautionary tale, instead of blithely allowing cars to choke their thoroughfares. Because once you go down this road, it’s a long way coming back.

A Rough Day for Korea’s Environment

PHENOL LEVELS SPIKED IN South Korea’s Nakdong river today after a factory near the river went up in flames. In response to the pollution, authorities in the cities of Daegu and Gumi interrupted their water supplies for several hours, according to news reports. Both cities are now back online, but the event initially brought fears of a repeat of the 1991 disaster, when massive amounts of phenol leaked from a factory owned by the Doosan Group into Daegu’s reservoir system, making hundreds of people violently ill. Phenol is a toxic, colorless acid that has limited solubility in water. While most South Koreans drink filtered or bottled water, they still cook, bathe and brush their teeth with water from the tap.

At the same time, cities all over South Korea are currently getting a nasty dose of ‘Yellow Dust‘ — a cloud of pollutants that migrates regularly from China’s Gobi Desert to Korea and surrounding nations, causing severe respiratory problems for some. On bad yellow dust days (like the one pictured above), Koreans wear masks when walking the streets and advise strongly against doing any kind of outdoor exercise.

Photo: dust from over gobi desert over korea, by Abri Beluga.

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