Opinion: New Airports and Climate Change

Dr Nial Moores, Birds Korea, February 28th 2020

As reported by the AFP, on February 27th, “Britain’s Court of Appeal on Thursday ruled in favour of green campaigners who oppose the building of a third runway at London’s Heathrow airport, Europe’s busiest.

The court said the UK government — which in 2018 approved the Heathrow extension — had failed to take into account its commitments to the Paris Agreement to limit climate warming.”

According to the same article, London’s Mayor stated that,

“Today’s judgement is a major victory for all Londoners who are passionate about tackling the climate emergency and cleaning up our air.”

This news comes as here in the Republic of Korea, development ministries are pushing for yet another round of airport construction. With under-used airport capacity in several parts of the mainland, this new push is focused on some of the nation’s most beautiful and bio-diverse islands: Ulleung in the East Sea, Baekryeong in the far northwest and Jeju in the far southwest.

These are exceptional, sensitive areas.  Building airports on them will increase greenhouse gas emissions; increase demands on scarce water resources; and undermine the nation’s ability to meet its commitments both to the Paris Agreement to limit climate warming and to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

From our own research on Baekryeong Island and on Jeju Island (including on both islands this year), we are fully confident that there has not been proper consideration of the potential impacts on national biodiversity at least for either of these proposed developments.

On Baekryeong Island, a migrant hot spot, aircraft will need to fly low over a reservoir and rice-fields to land on a proposed runway that currently is an area used by thousands of duck and geese and substantial numbers of soaring raptors. The threat of bird strike seems very real; and unless substantial mitigation efforts are taken, the costs on biodiversity as well as on climate will be substantial. All the same, the only phone call our office has received from people claiming to be connected to the project was to complain about our suggestion – based on 200 days of research – that the area is very bird-rich and even meets Ramsar criteria for identification as an internationally important wetland.

Although no-one on the island we met in January 2020 seemed to know where the airport was going to be built, a feasibility study conducted in 2017 suggested that the runway (marked in red) would run through rice-fields used by thousands of geese and duck for foraging (3, below) and the reservoir (2) used by the same waterbirds for roosting.
Tundra Bean Geese, Rice-fields by the reservoir, Baekryeong Island, November 2019 © Nial Moores
Ducks and geese, Baekryeong main reservoir, November 2019 © Nial Moores

On Jeju Island, most of our recent research has been conducted along the Bijarim Ro, an area targeted for road-widening in preparation for the proposed Second Jeju Airport close to Seongsan. We were first invited (and funded) by the Jeju government to conduct an independent survey there in June 2019 because the initial formal assessment undertaken to support a road-widening project had found only a couple dozen bird species and overlooked species like the globally Vulnerable and Nationally Endangered Fairy Pitta Pitta nympha (팔색조), instead found by local activist Kim Kimi.

Fairy Pitta, Jeju Island © Nial Moores

Following her discovery of the pittas there, the Green Party and local groups appealed to national conservation bodies (essentially the Ministry of Environment and the Cultural Heritage Administration), who requested a stay on construction while a proper assessment was conducted. Hence the decision to delay construction: a commendable decision taken by the Jeju government.

Working with the local Bijarim Ro Monitoring team, our three surveys there (in June and December 2019 and in February 2020) have so far found 77 bird species, including no less than 13 species that are either assessed as Nationally Endangered or as National Natural Monuments. The Bijarim Ro is clearly important for the conservation of national biodiversity.

The response to this new information, gathered at taxpayer’s expense? Media on Jeju Island suggest that the road-widening will go ahead as planned this March.

On February 20th and 21st, we also combined our research along the Bijarim Ro with time spent 30 minutes’ drive away in areas which will be massively impacted by the Second Jeju Airport if it is built.

Our survey points along the Seongsan coast of Jeju, February 20th 2020; and the approximate proposed location of the 2nd Jeju Airport based on a government report. If built, this new airport would be only about 5km southwest of the outstandingly beautiful World Heritage-listed Ilchulbong or Sunrise Peak.
View of “Sunrise Peak” from the sea, February 21st 2020: habitat for the globally threatened Crested Murrelet © Nial Moores

Our surveys confirmed – for the very first time it appears – the presence of several pairs of globally Vulnerable Crested Murrelet Synthliboramphus wumizusume (뿔쇠오리) in inshore waters there.

Crested Murrelet, sea off from Seongsan, Jeju Island, February 21st © Kim Yeiwon

This discovery follows on from one made by Jeonbuk researcher Ju Yung-Ki and local activists from the growing network “Seongsan People who Care for the Environment”. In summer 2019, they confirmed the presence of singing Fairy Pitta in nearby forest, on a hill at the end of the proposed runway.

Crested Murrelet and Fairy Pitta are two species with a lot in common it seems. Both are wonderfully beautiful indicators of their respective habitats and both are globally threatened and in decline. Both are listed as Nationally Endangered by the Ministry of Environment. Both are listed as National Natural Monuments. And it appears, both species were simply missed by the environmental impact assessment for the proposed Second Jeju Airport – even though both were found during very short surveys conducted rapidly by independent researchers.

What other species have been overlooked in the proposed airport area?

And will knowing that Nationally and Globally threatened species are in the area to be impacted by the Second Jeju Airport actually change anything?

The world is in the throes of the climate and biodiversity crises. Prolonged wars, global outbreaks of disease and even locust plagues are additional terrible indicators of a World – or at least of a species, Homo sapiens – that is increasingly out of balance.

Understanding this, what direction will the Republic of Korea take?

Will the nation continue on chasing the myth of never-ending growth and technical fixes? Or will the nation’s leaders join with leaders elsewhere and instead honour existing obligations to the Paris Agreement and to the Convention on Biological Diversity, in the pursuit of genuine sustainability?

Smog rises up from Jeju City to cover the lower slops of the ROK’s highest mountain, Halla San. February 23rd 2020 © Nial Moores

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