South Korea’s air quality crisis

From ToxicLeaks

South Korea’s air quality crisis[edit | edit source]

The final days of March 2018 in Seoul, South Korea, demonstrated what has become a national crisis for the country: Its air quality in recent years has ranked among the worst in the world – and it’s only going to get worse in the next five years. For more than 25 million people living in the greater metropolitan area, the world’s second-largest metro area, toxic air is causing severe health and quality of life impacts. Koreans are increasingly impatient with government failing to act to reduce the fine particulate matter levels; that anger is shared across South Korea. Amid record-setting levels of PM2.5 in some areas during the last week of March, more than 223,000 people had signed a petition on the Cheong Wa Dae (Blue House) website demanding that President Moon Jae-in act to curb respiratory and other health threats. In South Korea, that means the petition crossed the threshold to require an official response.

The concern about South Korean outrage, though, is that it targets China and blames the factories of the Shandong peninsula – just a few hundred kilometers west, across the Yellow Sea – for the thick, choking fog of pollution that has made Seoul look like Beijing and Delhi. In January 2018, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said that with its PM2.5 levels of 27.9 micrograms per cubic meter, South Korea is the most polluted country of the 35 wealthier, developed OECD nations. The real problem is that it isn’t China that’s entirely to blame. It’s South Korea that’s causing its own crisis.

Seoul’s domestic pollution[edit | edit source]

Moon’s administration has made air pollution a priority. Elected in May 2018 after campaigning in part on environmental issues, Moon in October 2018 rolled out a USD$6.3 billion five-year plan to cut PM2.5 emissions 30 percent by 2022, while reducing nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOC). That will mean closing coal plants, reducing vehicle emissions and reining in industry and manufacturing. South Korea generates about 40 percent of its electricity from coal, and plans a turn toward renewables.

It’s a promising step in taking South Korea’s domestic pollution problem seriously, rather than blaming the steel manufacturing plants and aluminium smelters of neighboring China. The Korea‐United States Air Quality Study (KORUS-AQ) in 2016 was a sophisticated collaboration between Korea’s National Institute of Environmental Research (NIER) and the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). By restricting the time period of the study to May-June measurements, it reduced the influence of pollution transport from China, which is more common in March and April.

The KORUS AQ measured South Korea’s air for six elements: Apart from PM2.5, scientists monitored PM10, O3, NO2, SO2 and CO. The PM2.5 and ozone exceeded air quality standards during the study period, but direct transport from China was observed only in late May. “Local emissions play a significant role and are often sufficient to create air quality violations,” the report concluded. South Korea is making its own air toxic, but transboundary pollution is viewed “as an exacerbating factor.” More than half of South Korea’s air pollution is coming from its own country, and not from China.

Blaming China for toxic air[edit | edit source]

KORUS AQ created a clearer picture of Seoul’s dirty air, but it didn’t eliminate China’s role in causing air pollution in South Korea. The PM2.5 concentration does spike when weather conditions support direct transport from China, roughly doubling then the PM2.5 levels observed in the study. In April 2017, a group of South Koreans – led by the Korea Green Foundation – sued both China and South Korea.

“Korea suffers serious damage from fine dust but China does not make sufficient efforts to control pollutants,” said organization president Choi Yul, who was joined by former Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Minister Kim Sung-hoon and others as plaintiffs. “The Republic of Korea even fails to identify the cause of fine dust. It has neglected its duty to protect the people’s rights to safety,” the group added.

In March 2018, a new study linked the substances in South Korea to China by tracking chemicals used in fireworks at the Chinese New Year. "We have scientifically proven that atmospheric pollutants from China enter Korea to aggravate the concentration of fine-dust levels,” said Jung Jin-sang at the Korea Research Institute of Standards and Science. Yet implicating China isn’t the solution to air quality issues.

Seeking cooperation from Beijing[edit | edit source]

While China’s role in creating pollution in other countries, Japan among them, has caused complaints for years, Korean pressure following the air quality crisis of March 2018 forced Moon’s administration to seek greater cooperation from Beijing. Moon, meeting March 30 with Chinese special envoy Yang Jiechi, stressed the rising tide of public opinion in China and the need to create a joint environmental center.

The need for a coordinated effort also was a conclusion of the KORUS AQ team, which suggested an expansion of a NIER-Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences (CRAES) collaboration.