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 foryears. According to City of Seoul Research Institute of Public Health andEnvironment, approximately 25 million people, mostly residing in the capitalarea, inhale hazardous amount of microscopic particles on daily basis. Ofparticular concern is the increasing atmospheric concentration of PM2.
5, the invisiblenanoparticle known to trigger a variety of illnesses by penetrating deep intoour bloodstream and respiratory system. Despite the widespread apprehension of publichealth impacts, however, the root cause of polluted air remains a complicateddebate with 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 Headquartersof Seoul in 2011 and 2016 indicated that up to 80 percent of city’s air qualitycan be 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 ideologicallyhostile to China; estimating the economic damage from air pollution to hoverover 9 billion 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 beengenerated within the country. Experts cited South Korea’s reliance on coalplants for its vehicles, along with industrial emissions created atconstruction sites, as the major causal agents of domestic pollution.
Henceliberal-minded politicians and lawmakers are seeking to limit car use and shutdown country’s power plants – despite economic risks that may follow.Putting mypolitical orientation aside, I believe transboundary pollution from Chinaimposes greater influence on South Korea’s air quality compared to localemissions. This is because of marginal, or almost non-existent, improvementsmade after the government tackled domestic causes of pollution. Seoul recentlywaived public 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. Similar attempted took place 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 accuratesampling of atmospheric conditions along with sophisticated chemistry andstatistics, which explains the contradicting conclusions drawn from different researchstudies.
Though I am not undermining South Korea’s own emissions, it seemsevident that neighboring China But despite my firmopinion, I know blankly pointing fingers at China could never be the remedy toSouth Korea’s pollution crisis. Rather, air pollution is a problem that requiresSouth Korea to make a joint effort with its neighboring nations for a long-termapproach. Thus, if I were the Minister of Health and Welfare, my proposedsolution would be to organize a gathering of East Asian leaders to discusstransboundary pollution. Modeled by Europe’s Convention on Long-RangeTransboundary Air Pollution, the ultimate goal of the meeting is to form alegally-binding protocol to limit industrial activities and address air qualityin specific regions with hazardous level of atmospheric particulates. I indeedacknowledge the socioeconomic difference between the two continents; most Asiannations would be reluctant to risk their economic growth for betterenvironment. However, the recent Paris agreement demonstrated the willingnessof countries, regardless of their respective economic status, to actively takepart in addressing climate change. The fact that the whole international communitywere able to unite for a single cause shows that regional barriers can beovercome as well.
Though it would not have an immediate effect, I believe myproposal would be a meaningful first step for South Korea’s prolonged battle ineradicating its choking air pollution.