These days, one of the most important daily routines for many people is to check the day’s fine dust concentration. Indeed, a fine dust report has now become a standard addition to the weather report and has become a main news item. Fine dust threatens not only people’s daily lives but also people’s health. So how do we deal with our seemingly worsening fine dust dilemma?
What is fine dust?
Fine dust is composed of very tiny particles (under 10 in diameter) that are invisible to our eyes. These particles float in the air until eventually settling over everything. Fine dust is produced when fossil fuels, such as coal, petroleum and so on, are burned or are present in the discharge gas from exhaust fumes and industrial processes. Many people confuse fine dust with yellow dust. Yellow dust comes in the form of a dust storm from deserts in China or Mongolia and consists of soil and has no standard particle size. It has negative effects like damaging the growth of crops, but it also has positive effects like preventing the soil from acidifying. By contrast, fine dust contains mineral ingredients, such as carbon or ion components, and is absorbed through the bronchial tubes of the lungs, which results in an increased prevalence of lung diseases of every kind, asthma for example, and early mortality. Thus, we have every right to worry about fine dust. It can kill. In the case of an adult, when mean daily density of fine dust increases by 10mg/m3, the mortality risk increases to 0.44%. Moreover, when the mean daily density of ultra-fine dust increases by 10mg/m3, the mortality risk increases to 0.95%. Especially in children exposed to fine dust, the mortality rate caused by respiratory diseases increases. Indeed, the impairment of pulmonary function in young and developing respiratory tracts may persist into adulthood. Recently, American researchers have investigated the effects of fine dust on the human body. And the result of the observations of students in California show that children who were exposed to these pollutants were 4.9 times mor likely to suffer from restricted pulmonary function. In addition, the risk of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes increased. According to a study published in Nature, fine dust will be responsible for 39,000 people dying early every year in Korea and Japan.
What is the cause for the increased levels of fine dust in Korea?
The first cause for the increased levels of fine dust in Korea is China’s continuing industrialization. Korea’s foreign contribution rate of the high density of fine dust increased from 55.8% to 76.3% in 2017. Due to China’s excessive factory establishment, the fine dust density in cities around Beijing is over 200mg/m3, and a westerly wind carries the fine dust to Korea. This problem will likely be exacerbated when the Chinese Government moves its plants in Beijing, the capital, to Shandong, a suburban area closer to Korea. Add to this the fact that the westerly wind that carries the dust from China to Korea is expected to increase in lifespan from 19 days to 75 days, atmospheric congestion to increase from 16 days to 29 days and a decrease in the amount of rainfall and the future does not look too inviting.
The second cause is the constant discharge of domestic fine dust. The major sources of fine dust in Korea is the burning process of the manufacturing industry (65%) followed by conveyance pollutant sources, such as cars and ships (25%), and production process (6%) to name the major contributors.
Let’s examine two major causes: coal-fired power plants and the lack of vehicle regulation. Korea’s air pollution is mostly from automobile exhausts and construction sites, but coal power plants, which emit the most carbon dioxide, account for the largest portion. Despite this, the Korean Government is planning to add 20 more coal power plants over the next five years. And this follows from the number of coal power plants being increased by 95% in 2016. Coal power constitutes 40% of the nation’s total energy production, and compared to this, natural gas, which is regarded as a relatively eco-friendly fuel, declined by 8,7% in 2015 and 6.4% in 2016. The conundrum is that if we were to reduce our dependence on coal power generation, our electricity bills would shoot up.
Unlike cities, such as London and Paris, Seoul is less interested in vehicle regulation. As we saw with the negative reception to the License Plate System, which was carried out to reduce air pollution, in the case of Daejun-si digital terminal, which is purchased for License Plate system, 40,000 of these were neglected. Thus, the system was criticized for being a waste of money. Also, in the case of Seoul, only 1% of automobile owners complied with the License Plate System. When a fine dust watch is issued, the level of contribution by traffic is 41% of the total domestic contribution. The World Health Organization (WHO) has instructed Korea that it needs to reduce its vehicular emission of Class 1 carcinogens. In this regard, Seoul City announced that it would expand its restrictions on the operation of old diesel cars from Seoul to the whole of korea. The city also mentioned that they would discuss with the government policies to force construction projects to use eco-friendly machinery and that Gyeong-gi and Incheon’s buses use compressed natural gas. There are many, however, who believe such actions remain way short of the measures taken in other developed countries.
World’s response to transnational air pollution
The Korean Government admits the fact that a major cause of fine dust and ultra-fine dust is China, but because of its reluctance to cause a diplomatic dispute, the government shies away from the issue. After all, an admission of complicity by the Chinese Government might be serious enough to warrant compensation to the Korean Government. Thus, instead of urging countermeasures the Korean Government is in process of negotiating with the Chinese Government for the installation of fine dust collecting facilities and the reduction of coal-fired power generation in the long-term so as to improve the atmospheric conditions. Many Koreans, however, remain dissatisfied with the government. In fact, representatives of the Korea Foundation of Environment, Choi-Yeol and lawyer Ahn-Gyeong-Jae, lodged a compensation claim for damages, against Korea and China, to the Seoul Central District Court. They insisted that China had the responsibility to keeps its output of pollution in an allowable range, and they demanded compensation of 3 million won. This case was the first international suit aimed at forcing the Korean and Chinese Governments into discussing the causes of fine dust and taking measures to solve this matter at a governmental level.
It could do Korea much benefit to see how other foreign countries solve the problem of air pollution? First, let’s talk about Europe. These kinds of transnational environmental pollution problems have been on the rise in Europe, where industrialization started early, and for this reason, European countries have lots of treaties and conventions. One of the examples we refer to for solving our fine dust problems is the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP). CLRTAP is a convention that was signed by 31 countries from among the 34 countries of UNECE and is aimed specifically at reducing the amount of air pollutants. It focuses on the movement of pollutants, air pollution management strategies country by country, and information gathering about technologies to reduce emissions. CLRTAP is composed of eight protocols that focus on the expansion of the pollutants, the setting of the reduction aims, the reduction methods to be employed and the cost sharing through discussions among the member countries. The scientific research and reduction aims used in the protocol are becoming a representative model of international negotiations on climate change.
Second, Singapore is a nation that has coped well with transnational air pollution. Singapore’s air pollution is due to pollutants from Indonesia, where forests are burned to make paper or palm oil. The Singaporean Government enacted laws to provide 1 million masks to 200,000 low-income residents and to demand damages compensation from Indonesian companies. In addition, when Indonesian forest fires are severe, Singapore dispatches troops and fire brigades to support Indonesia’s efforts to control and extinguish said fires. The Singaporean Government has emphasized that ASEAN countries have to act adamantly in order to solve transnational problems.
What is the solution?
|Photo by The Korea Times|
According to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), if the current level of air pollution lasts, then 9 million Koreans would meet an early death by 2060. This is the most serious prognosis of any developed country. The question thus arises: what can we do?
Firstly, we have to sign an environmental treaty with other foreign countries. The Korea Ministry of Environment said, “Korea, Japan and China agreed that the 19th Korea-China-Japan conference of environment ministers will be held in Suwon, from August 24th to 25th, and outlined the joint communiqué to be adopted at a ministerial meeting and the cooperative action plan of the three countries.” The Ministry also added, “The present joint communiqué will contain powerful cooperative efforts by the Ministries of the three countries for solving global matters related to the environment, such as air pollution, atmospheric change and so on. Many experts have said that we need to have this kind of continuous environmental movement between three countries to ensure a better environment.
Secondly, we have to focus on the development of clean energy. Germany, which has less potential for solar energy generation than Korea, has increased its portion of renewable energy from 9.3% to 27.3% over the past decade, and China has devised a plan to replace 20% of its total primary energy supply with non-fossil fuel. What we need to pay attention to is the fact that China’s 2nd largest source of energy production is wind energy generation (coal thermal power generation is first). Clean energy also makes economic sense: according to report by Greenpeace, new renewable energy can save 3.7 billion dollars annually up to 2050 because it has no fuel consumption. Additionally, Greenpeace has stated that Korea shouldn’t have any problem increasing its proportion of renewable energy to 60% by 2050 and converting all energy to renewable energy by the end of the 21st century. For an environmentally sustainable society, Korea needs to invest in environmentally focused fields of research and to create environmentally themed policies.
Thirdly, we have to draw up better precautionary methodologies in our official fine dust manual and improve the education programs about fine dust. Most educational institutions have been setting class schedules according to the manual for high concentrations of fine dust, which is distributed by the Korea Ministry of Environment. According to the manual, if the day's fine dust forecast is 'bad', it will take measures, such as restraint, prohibition or temporary closure of outdoor activities, but if it is 'normal' or close to the 'poor' level, measures will be left to the discretion of the educational institution. So, many problems have been increasing because some educational institutions allow children to have outdoor activities at a normal level of fine dust that is actually very close to hazardous levels. Therefore, the fine dust prevention manual requires specific clarification and a greater emphasis of uniformity of action, and fine dust precautionary measures training is also necessary.
Lastly, we need to tighten the regulations of vehicular use in Korea. The nation has been regulating car use by car-free days and other initiatives for preventing air pollution but they have not been very effective. Accordingly, Seoul-si started a traffic mileage program whereby if you reduce the miles driven in your car, then you will gain up to 70,000 points.Citizens can use these points to clear the penalty points they recieved. Besides, if you buy electric car, which has no harm to environment, then Ulleung will give you 12 million won and Gwangju and Sejong each give 7 million won. In the case of London, England, 12,000 people died due to smog in 1952. So, London has a history of being sensitive to air pollution. For this reason, Sadiq Aman Khan, the mayor of London, made a public statement about paying the ‘penalty for diesel’. Here, diesel cars more than four years old and gasoline cars more than 14 years old entering London will be charged 24 pounds per day. Likewise, and in order to reduce the use of cars, Paris has encouraged residents to use public transport. To this end, Paris spends about 4 million euros per days to make public transport free for Parisians on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. It also enforced, in 2014, ‘the alternative day no-driving system’. It seems that Korea needs stronger vehicular regulations like other foreign countries.
Seoul is now one of the world’s most air polluted cities along with Beijing and New Delhi. We need to solve the matter of fine dust by developing alternative energy sources or by collaborative efforts with foreign countries before many more lives truly are lost.
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