Could a tiny island become the blueprint for an entire nation to drastically reduce its carbon emissions?
It’s a hypothesis currently being tested on Gapado, a speck of land off the southern coast of South Korea. With fewer than 200 residents on less than 1 sq km, two wind turbines already ensure much of the community’s energy is renewable, and a large proportion of the homes are solar powered. The island produces more energy than it consumes, and stores the excess on a self-contained grid.
Gapado is a test case in a bigger project to curb emissions from the entire Jeju province by 2030. It’s a bold plan, especially given the region’s reputation as a tourism hotspot: Gapado lies just off Jejudo, a large tropical getaway with more than 15 million visitors a year.
Though the number of holidaymakers is expected to rise, the tourist-clogged province wants to convert all vehicles and electricity generation to renewable energy by the end of the next decade. That plan, however, says nothing of the carbon emissions caused by planes: the flight route between Jeju International and Seoul Gimpo earned the title of the world’s busiest in 2018, with 76,000 fights to and from Seoul.
A hotel- and airplane-filled hotspot setting such an ambitious environmental goal may sound zealous. But the project, which emphasises renewable energy such as solar and wind, is a crucial one for places like Jeju – because its future as a destination may depend on it.
“The effects of climate change, like sea level rise, will impact islands around the world,” says Kass Rohrbach, a deputy director at environmental organisation the Sierra Club.
These days, ‘zero-carbon’ projects – places trying to decrease the harmful carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels – are common all over the world. They are trying to counteract the 37 gigatonnes of global CO2 emissions that were recorded last year, a number that keeps rising. Plus, this week, a landmark United Nations report warned that global average sea levels could rise up to 1.1m by 2100 – bad news for islands like Jeju.
The good news is, though small, Gapado could show the rest of South Korea how sustainability is done. And it’s also all part of a growing global effort.
“Two countries, Bhutan and Suriname, are already carbon-neutral,” points out Jacob Corvidae, a zero-carbon city expert at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a US clean energy organisation. “We already have commitments to carbon neutrality that accounts for 16% of the world's GDP. We expect this number to grow dramatically in the next decade.”
So as other destinations look to do the same, Jeju’s Gapado might well provide a model for a carbon-free future.
Drone footage by Son Yunjae.