With Seoul consistentlyranking near the very bottom in the annual Air Quality Index, South Koreanadministration has been troubled by the emergence of air pollution issue for years.According to City of Seoul Research Institute of Public Health and Environment,approximately 25 million people, mostly residing in the capital area, inhalehazardous amount of microscopic particles on daily basis.
Of particular concernis the increasing atmospheric concentration of PM2.5, the invisible nanoparticleknown to trigger a variety of illnesses by penetrating deep into our bloodstreamand respiratory system. Despite the widespread apprehension of public healthimpacts, however, the root cause of polluted air remains a complicated debatewith political brawl involved. Many view thecapital’s pollution to be mainly external in origin, as sandstorms composed of Chineseindustrial dust and particles from the Gobi Desert seasonally travel eastwardon the trade winds. Research conducted by Climate and Environment Headquarters ofSeoul in 2011 and 2016 indicated that up to 80 percent of city’s air quality canbe attributed to international factors, confirming China’s contribution toSouth Korea’s particle-laden smog. Transboundary pollution has been thedominant argument for the right-wing conservatives who are ideologically hostileto China; estimating the economic damage from air pollution to hover over 9billion dollars, they demand the Chinese government to make appropriatecompensation and significantly reduce their industrial emissions.
On the otherside of the political spectrum, liberals – with more amicable attitude towardsChina – believe that much of the appalling air quality is homegrown. Contraryto previous findings, joint research by NASA and the South Korean government in2017 concluded that local emissions are a strong source of atmospheric particulates,contributing to over half of the nation’s air pollution. Environmental NGOGreenpeace also announced that up to 70 percent of the smog may have been generatedwithin the country. Experts cited South Korea’s reliance on coal plants for itsvehicles, along with industrial emissions created at construction sites, as themajor causal agents of domestic pollution. Hence liberal-minded politicians andlawmakers are seeking to limit car use and shut down country’s power plants – despiteeconomic risks that may follow.
Putting mypolitical orientation aside, I believe transboundary pollution from Chinaimposes greater influence on South Korea’s air quality compared to local emissions.This is because of marginal, or almost non-existent, improvements made afterthe government tackled domestic causes of pollution. Seoul recently waivedpublic transportation fees over two days in an attempt to reduce vehicleemissions, but its impact on air quality proved to be insignificant. Throughoutboth days, the average density of ultrafine dust was over 130 micrograms percubic meter, the same hazardous level the city maintained before the policy wasimplemented. Another example occurred earlier last June, when South Koreanadministration temporarily closed 10 coal-fired power plants hoping for respitein pollution, but eventually failed to prevent thick smog from frequently blanketingthe metropolitan area.
It is also worth noting that locating pollutionorigination is an extraordinarily complex process that requires accurate samplingof atmospheric conditions along with sophisticated chemistry and statistics, whichexplains the contradicting conclusions drawn from different research studies. But despite my firmopinion, I know blankly pointing fingers at China could never be the remedy to SouthKorea’s pollution crisis. Rather, air pollution is a problem that necessitates SouthKorea to look beyond its domestic policies and focus more on regional actions. Thus,if I were the Minister of Health and Welfare, my proposed solution would be to organizea gathering of East Asian leaders to discuss transboundary pollution. Modeledby Europe’s Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, the ultimategoal of the meeting is to form a legally-binding protocol to limit industrialactivities and address air quality in specific regions with hazardous level of atmosphericparticulates.
I indeed acknowledge the socioeconomic difference between the twocontinents; most Asian nations would be reluctant to risk their economic growthfor better environment. However, the recent Paris agreement demonstrated thewillingness of countries, regardless of their respective financial status, toactively take part in addressing climate change. The fact that the whole internationalcommunity were able to unite for a single cause shows that regional differencescan be overcome as well.
Though it would not have an immediate effect, I believemy proposal could be a meaningful first step for South Korea’s long-term battlein eradicating its choking air pollution.