Small Actions = Big Changes

Seoul is a pioneer in the "New Urbanization": creating a sustainable future city where humankind and nature coexist

This article first appeared in the United Nations Environment Programme's Our Planet Magazine, March 2016.

Climate change and air pollution are not problems for just one country, one city or one town. The melting of the Arctic threatens the survival of polar bears, and the city of Seoul shares responsibility for this. This is a challenge and pending problem for every single person to resolve; it will become a theme for everyone.

New planning for urbanization is a first critical step in addressing climate change. Many cities already have a long history and are moving toward stability, but many others are just starting urbanization, experiencing rapid development and expansion. We need to move away from standardized urbanization and planning that aims for modernization and industrialization through destruction and construction, building concrete roads and buildings. We should plan instead for a “new urbanization”.

“New urbanization” addresses climate change.
“New urbanization” has the foundation for energy self-reliance.
“New urbanization” is sustainable where humankind and nature co-exist.

Seoul is on the road to such a "new urbanization". By restructuring and regenerating our city, we are dreaming of a sustainable future city where humankind and nature coexist, and which tackles climate change while establishing the foundation for energy self-reliance. Together with our 10 million citizens, we are paving the way for a "new Seoul".

Korea, which went through the tragedy of the Korean War, used to be one of the poorest countries in the world, but has now grown to become one of its ten major economies. Its GDP has multiplied by more than 300-fold since the 1950s, and Seoul was at the centre of this miracle. In the process it became a global megacity, visited and loved by people around the world. More than 12 million tourists come every year.

Just as a small stone thrown into a lake makes big waves, small actions from citizens changed Seoul.
Park Won Soon

However, behind this rapid, compressed growth, Seoul suffered from environmental pollution, an energy crisis and reckless urban development. Our sky was covered with dust and smog. Streams were rotten and our forests were dying. The city thought for a long time about how to resolve this. We dreamed of a new Seoul that could overcome climate change and energy challenges and achieve eco-friendly city regeneration. And we took action.

We have implemented such low-pollution vehicle projects as switching public transport to natural resources, including compressed natural gas, installing emission-reduction devices on outdated diesel vehicles, and converting engines to cut emissions. We have increased the supply of electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and expanded the charging infrastructure. And we have designated pedestrian-only streets to reduce the number of vehicles, the main culprit for greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

Concentrations of particulate matter ten micrometers or less in diameter (PM10) fell from 71μg/m3 in 2001 to 46μg/m3 in 2014. This, however, is still relatively high compared to other major cities around the world. We realized our citizens alone cannot improve air quality, and that a joint cooperation and implementation system is needed among local governments and cities around the world.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government also decided that the fundamental way to tackle climate change is to reduce energy use, and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster gave us confidence in that decision.

We initiated a “One Less Nuclear Power Plant” project, establishing goals and taking action to match what would be generated by a nuclear power plant by saving energy and producing renewable energy, such as solar power.

The rate of energy self-reliance rose from 2.8 per cent in 2011, to 4.7 per cent in 2014. Energy saving also created around 20,000 new jobs.

Citizens installed solar power panels at homes and schools, and joined in building solar power plants. More than one sixth of Seoul’s population – around 1.7 million citizens – joined the Eco-Mileage System, a programme that provides incentives based on the amount of energy saved. Energy saving became a part of life at home, school and at work.

Wastewater heat from sewage treatment works, chimney waste heat from resource recovery facilities and small hydropower became usable energy sources, and we have also improved the energy efficiency of buildings, which account for 56 per cent of energy consumption.
In June 2014, six months earlier than the original schedule, Seoul reached the goal of cutting two million tons of oil equivalent (TOE) thanks to citizens’ active participation. The rate of energy self-reliance rose from 2.8 per cent in 2011, to 4.7 per cent in 2014. Energy saving also created around 20,000 new jobs.

“One Less Nuclear Power Plant” is attracting both Korean local governments and international organizations and cities to come and learn from it. Meanwhile, Seoul is implementing the second phase of the programme, which – if successfully completed – will increase its energy self-reliance by 20 per cent and cut 4 million TOE of energy by 2020, avoiding the emission of 10 million tons of greenhouse gases.

So Seoul is changing, addressing climate change, living with the environment, and we are on our way to a sustainable future city. Our vision of a green city taking the road to “new urbanization” enables us to achieve growth at the same time.

All this became possible by working with our 10 million citizens, through citizen power and citizen governance. Whenever visiting city officials ask me how our city was able to change, I say, “Citizens are the answer” and “Citizens are the energy”. Just as a small stone thrown into a lake makes big waves, small actions from citizens changed Seoul.
Now, we are dreaming of change not just for our city, but for the world. We are dreaming of city governance that reaches beyond citizen governance. Cities around the world are acting with us.

In April 2015, I was elected President of ICLEI, the world’s largest organization for cities and local governments, with around 1,000 cities from 86 countries working towards sustainable development. More than 1,300 city delegates from 213 cities and local governments from 91 countries attended its World Congress last year to discuss how to tackle climate change. I joined 35 other mayors from leading megacities, cities and towns to commit to the Compact of Mayors, the first global announcement of its kind.

At the World Congress, 10 million Seoul citizens made a promise before the city delegates from around the world to cut 10 million tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2020 through reducing emissions by one ton per person.

I believe that the cooperation and actions of ICLEI cities contributed to the climate agreement that was adopted in Paris in December. Cities around the world need to have a new dream together. We need to open a new era for communication and cooperation, moving towards sustainable future cities. We need to reach beyond the national borders; citizens and cities from different countries need to hold hands.

The world is emphasizing collaboration and cooperation that reach beyond nations, societies and markets. Stakeholders, including individuals, are creating a new flow of change. I am confident that our small actions will lead to big changes, writing a new history of the Earth. If we go together, we create a road. If we dream together, it turns into a reality. Let’s go and dream together for our one and only Earth.