This article was submitted to the Thomson Reuters Environmental Media Award competition. The winner will attend the 2012 World Conservation Congress in Juju Island, Korea, in September 2012. Please lend your support by visiting the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Facebook Page and vote to lend your support. Thank you!
Korea is the leading model for countries seeking to develop sustainable economic growth. The country’s path to a more environmentally responsible economy, improved well-being for its citizens and renewed embrace of nature, however, has not been an easy one. Having lived in Korea during the mid-1990s, I am always astounded at the transformation from what was once a polluted country reliant on export manufacturing to its current path of “green growth.” Political and business leaders across the globe who wish to replicate such success must start out the way Koreans did: with long term investment in technology and education.
Of course change can occur from the bottom up, but it sure helps to gain buy-in from the top. Korea’s President, Lee Myung-bak, has pushed Korea to adopt its green growth agenda since his tenure as Seoul’s mayor. A city that once favored giant concrete apartment complexes over nature, opened more green spaces during Lee’s mayorship. Under Lee’s leadership, an acrid expressway that was once a stream, Cheonggyecheon, was ripped out and replaced by a waterway, and is now one of the most popular recreation areas in the city. This slow return to nature after decades of bulldozing it has been the first step in a cleaner and revitalized Korea.
Now that Korea is becoming more “green” on the surface, a new mindset is taking hold within the country’s business community. Korea’s foundation of sustainable development lies in the country’s educational system, which is among the world’s best. Such universities as KAIST attract not only the best and brightest in Korea, but from across the globe.
Those graduates, in turn, will benefit from such hubs as Korea’s Green Technology Center, one of Lee’s initiatives that will lead Korea’s charge towards a “green growth economy.” With the Korean parliament’s passage of a cap-and-trade system, watch for even more innovative businesses to emerge in this nation of 50 million people, from smart driving technologies to fuel cells. Meanwhile, Korea’s drive towards sustainable development is boosting traditional sectors like farming in regions including rural Jeju Island.
This remarkable change is unfolding despite Korea’s notoriously fractious politics. President Lee is from the party that represents the right of Korea’s political center. But there is nothing “progressive” or “liberal” about Lee’s agenda. His government’s policies, albeit controversial, meld good business with citizens’ well-being. Currently Korea imports all of its energy and now its heavy manufacturing industries must compete with China. Yet Korea’s technolological prowess is second to none, with a future still bright because of the potential to export leading green technologies across the world. The return to nature will rely on technology, and so far, Korea has led the way forward.
Photo of display at a Seoul smart grid conference courtesy Leon Kaye.