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With Seoul consistently
ranking near the very bottom in the annual Air Quality Index, South Korean
administration 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, inhale hazardous amount of microscopic particles on daily basis. Of
particular concern is the increasing atmospheric concentration of PM2.5, the invisible
nanoparticle known to trigger a variety of illnesses by penetrating deep into
our bloodstream and respiratory system. Despite the widespread apprehension of public
health impacts, however, the root cause of polluted air remains a complicated
debate with political brawl involved.

Many view the
capital’s pollution to be mainly external in origin, as sandstorms composed of Chinese
industrial dust and particles from the Gobi Desert seasonally travel eastward
on the trade winds. Research conducted by Climate and Environment Headquarters
of Seoul in 2011 and 2016 indicated that up to 80 percent of city’s air quality
can be attributed to international factors, confirming China’s contribution to
South Korea’s particle-laden smog. Transboundary pollution has been the
dominant argument for the right-wing conservatives who are ideologically
hostile to China; estimating the economic damage from air pollution to hover
over 9 billion dollars, they demand the Chinese government to make appropriate
compensation and significantly reduce their industrial emissions.

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On the other
side of the political spectrum, liberals – with more amicable attitude towards
China – believe that much of the appalling air quality is homegrown. Contrary
to previous findings, joint research by NASA and the South Korean government in
2017 concluded that local emissions are a strong source of atmospheric particulates,
contributing to over half of the nation’s air pollution. Environmental NGO
Greenpeace also announced that up to 70 percent of the smog may have been
generated within the country. Experts cited South Korea’s reliance on coal
plants for its vehicles, along with industrial emissions created at
construction sites, as the major causal agents of domestic pollution. Hence
liberal-minded politicians and lawmakers are seeking to limit car use and shut
down country’s power plants – despite economic risks that may follow.

Putting my
political orientation aside, I believe transboundary pollution from China
imposes greater influence on South Korea’s air quality compared to local
emissions. This is because of marginal, or almost non-existent, improvements
made after the government tackled domestic causes of pollution. Seoul recently
waived public transportation fees over two days in an attempt to reduce vehicle
emissions, but its impact on air quality proved to be insignificant. Throughout
both days, the average density of ultrafine dust was over 130 micrograms per
cubic meter, the same hazardous level the city maintained before the policy was
implemented. Similar attempted took place last June, when South Korean
administration temporarily closed 10 coal-fired power plants hoping for respite
in pollution, but eventually failed to prevent thick smog from frequently blanketing
the metropolitan area. It is also worth noting that locating pollution
origination is an extraordinarily complex process that requires accurate
sampling of atmospheric conditions along with sophisticated chemistry and
statistics, which explains the contradicting conclusions drawn from different research
studies. Though I am not undermining South Korea’s own emissions, it seems
evident that neighboring China

But despite my firm
opinion, I know blankly pointing fingers at China could never be the remedy to
South Korea’s pollution crisis. Rather, air pollution is a problem that requires
South Korea to make a joint effort with its neighboring nations for a long-term
approach. Thus, if I were the Minister of Health and Welfare, my proposed
solution would be to organize a gathering of East Asian leaders to discuss
transboundary pollution. Modeled by Europe’s Convention on Long-Range
Transboundary Air Pollution, the ultimate goal of the meeting is to form a
legally-binding protocol to limit industrial activities and address air quality
in specific regions with hazardous level of atmospheric particulates. I indeed
acknowledge the socioeconomic difference between the two continents; most Asian
nations would be reluctant to risk their economic growth for better
environment. However, the recent Paris agreement demonstrated the willingness
of countries, regardless of their respective economic status, to actively take
part in addressing climate change. The fact that the whole international community
were able to unite for a single cause shows that regional barriers can be
overcome as well. Though it would not have an immediate effect, I believe my
proposal would be a meaningful first step for South Korea’s prolonged battle in
eradicating its choking air pollution.

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