South Korea steps up fight against pollution

South Korea’s parliament passed bills aimed at reining in air pollution. Seoul increasingly embraces emergency measures targeting sources from coal plants to cars.

Background

According to the Environmental Performance Index 2016, South Korea ranked 173rd out of 180 countries in terms of air quality. More than 50 per cent of the populations in South Korea is exposed to dangerous levels of fine dust. Experts have linked air pollution to China’s massive industrial activity and emissions from South Korean cars. Korea operates 53 coal-powered plants and intends to construct 20 more in the next five years. Although ten ageing plants will be shut by 2025, between 2005 and last year, the capacity of the country’s coal-fired power plants increased by almost 95 per cent. The burning of fossil fuel — a source of carbon dioxide emissions and smog — accounts for about 40 per cent of the country’s energy generation. 

In 2016, the Korean government implemented a new policy to control fine dust, but its effect thus far has been limited.

Analysis

South Korea has passed emergency measures to tackle the “social disaster” being unleashed by air pollution after record levels of fine dust blanketed most of the country. For six consecutive days in early March, high levels of concentrated pollutants enveloped most parts of South Korea. 

The national assembly passed a series of bills giving authorities access to emergency funds for measures that include the mandatory installation of high-capacity air purifiers in classrooms and encouraging sales of liquified petroleum gas vehicles, which produce lower emissions than those that run on petrol and diesel. The measures will give government officials access to a US$2.65bn reserve fund, as criticism mounts of President Moon Jae-in’s failure to tackle the crisis. The country's reserve funds stand at up to 3 trillion won ($A3.75 billion) this year.

Air pollution has become a key political issue after the concentration of fine dust particles surged to record levels in many parts of the country. Moon, whose personal approval ratings have dipped due to the crisis, has ordered officials to work with their Chinese counterparts on possible solutions, including the use of cloud-seeding to create artificial rain over the Yellow Sea, which divides the two countries, Yonhap said. Unless any objections are raised, it should take around 15 days for the bills to become law. 

Seven major cities suffered record-high concentrations of dangerous PM 2.5 particles, according to the National Institute of Environmental Research. South Korea’s air quality was the worst among its peers in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as of 2017. Its average annual exposure to fine particulate matter (PM) of less than 2.5 micrometres was 25.1 micrograms per cubic metre, slightly more than double the OECD average of 12.5.  The World Health Organization recommends that air quality standard should be no more than 10 micrograms in terms of PM 2.5 levels. It has warned that air pollution poses a major public health risk due to its links with a host of respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses. Pollution in Asia’s fourth-largest economy has driven up emergency measures, such as limiting vehicle use, curbing the use of coal-fired power stations and cutting the amount of dust generated by building sites and power plants. But they have had little success.

The crisis has also created friction with China, who South Korean public health experts say is responsible for between 50% and 70% of fine dust pollution in the Seoul area. Experts say the particles, from Chinese deserts and factories, are carried to the Korean peninsula by prevailing westerly winds. Chinese officials, however, rejected the claims and urged South Korea to first determine if its own factories, power plants and vehicles were to blame. “If we really want to solve the problem, we may first have to confirm what the problem is. If we don’t find any problem (at home), we must think that it has been from outside,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said, according to Kyodo news.

Assessment

Our assessment is that most of the particulate matter and other air pollutants come from the burning of fossil fuels, we need to switch to other sources for generating energy. We feel that the fine dust content in the air could be reduced further by limiting agricultural emissions. It can be noted that when manure and fertiliser are used on agricultural land, ammonia is released into the atmosphere, which reacts with sulphur and nitrogen oxides and associated sulphuric and nitric acids, forming salts such as ammonium sulphate and nitrate. These substances contribute significantly to the formation and composition of fine particles, interacting further with soot and organic aerosol compounds.

India Watch 

India’s problems with smog extend far beyond Delhi - the nation of 1.3 billion has 14 out of the 15 most polluted cities in the world, according to the World Health Organisation. Air pollution from crop burning costs North India more than $30 billion annually and increases the risk of acute respiratory infections three times.  Sunil Dahiya, clean air campaigner, Greenpeace says, “Politicians lack the will to prioritise pollution because they think the public doesn’t care much.”

 

Image Courtesy :

1.  Jimmy McIntyre - Editor HDR One Magazine - Smoggy Seoul

2. Phoenix7777 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]