Green as Good Politics: Seoul Mayor Stakes Reelection on Clean Air Policy, Ambitious EV Plan


Photo via the NY Times

How many politicians in the US could run their campaigns strictly on green issues, and do well in the polls? San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom and Seattle mayor Mike McGinn, to name a couple, have both publicly orchestrated fairly progressive green agendas to wide popular acclaim. But even they might envy Oh Se-hoon for his ambitious efforts to green up his city: he's decreased air pollution by 20%, he's got an ambitious plan to attempt to line the city with underground power strips to power electric vehicles, replaced petrol-guzzling buses with ones that ran on natural gas, and readied the city's entire fleet of taxis to be replaced by hybrids. And all these measures aren't just good for the city's resident's health and the environment--they're essential to Oh's reelection prospects. The story makes a fascinating case study of how green ideas can be good politic, and it's told in length in an article in the New York Times. Here's a snippet:

Mr. Oh is among a new breed of South Korean politicians who increasingly stake their political fortunes on so-called green growth. For Mr. Oh, that means creating jobs based on environmentally friendly technologies and figuring out how to make this city, home to one-fifth of the country's 49 million people, a healthier, more pleasant place to live.
Interestingly, he purports to be as motivated by a desire to improve aesthetics and general health as he is to stay competitive in the green technology sector. Oh himself says:
"My goal in the changing of the face of Seoul is all related to enhancing its attractiveness," said Mr. Oh, who is seeking re-election as his four-year term winds down. "If the city is attractive, people, information and capital flow in. This in turn creates economic re-vitality and it also creates a lot of jobs."
And for an example of how the administration's policy is designed, note how they've supported electric and hybrid car deployment:
Seoul began experimenting with hybrid taxis and it plans to introduce its first electric buses in April. Within 10 years, the city will replace all 9,000 buses and 72,000 taxis with electric or hybrid vehicles, Mr. Oh said. It will spend 178 billion won, or $156 million, on the effort in the next five years.

To encourage the shift, Seoul is buying electric cars for public use and offering subsidies for transport companies switching to green vehicles. It also promised motorists who drive electric cars discounts on parking fees and congestion charges.

"Our political and administrative needs to improve air quality make Seoul an early adopter of green cars," said Kim Hwang-rae, head of the city government's green car team. "South Korea started late in the green car revolution, but the public sector is leading the way, giving the industries an impetus to come along."

They're also designing an ambitious system of underground power sources that could eventually power 100% of the electric cars in Seoul without needing to plug-in--ever. But that's another story.

Now, many of these measures have been executed with an emphasis on improving the way the city looks, and how the city breathes--making it appear cleaner, and clearing the pollution. And Oh's measures have been successful in both regards. These measures are bound to be more successful in metropolitan governments, where cleaning up a city's air and appearance are of immediate concern to all the residents. But perhaps politicians of all stripes would be well served to take a look at Oh Se-hoon's example--strong messaging, combined with a tangible public health benefit has helped him become one of the greenest mayors on the planet. And it just might win him an election, too.

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