With transboundary pollution from China imposes greater influence

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. Another example occurred earlier 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.

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 necessitates South
Korea 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 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 financial 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 differences
can be overcome as well. Though it would not have an immediate effect, I believe
my proposal could be a meaningful first step for South Korea’s long-term battle
in eradicating its choking air pollution.