Fighting fine dust is a tough task
The past weekend saw another wave of fine dust blanket South Korea. Over the past 10 years, the frequency of waves of fine dust has increased steadily, causing people to worry about their negative effects on public health.
The problem also causes changes in daily life. An elementary school teacher I met last autumn told me that schools are eliminating playgrounds because there are so few days when the air is clean enough for children to use them.
The South Korean government, meanwhile, has failed to come up with an effective policy. Until the early 2010s, China was blamed for the bad air, and there was little pressure on the government to do anything. As the problem worsened, reports began to appear that domestic pollution was partly responsible.
In response, the government began to issue more assertive warnings on air quality and, in response to the most recent wave, banned some cars from the road in severely affected areas on alternating days based on the last digit of their licence plates. Though well intended, these efforts do not constitute a long-term response. To develop such a response, the South Korean government first needs to find out the causes. The first thing is to figure out how much of the pollution is domestic and how much comes from China and, perhaps, North Korea.
The nonprofit World Air Quality Index project in Beijing collects environmental information from 9,000 stations run by environmental agencies around the world and displays it on a searchable map. Over the past three years, I checked air quality in South Korea using the map. Seoul and areas down the west of the country are usually worse than areas on the east side. Many cities in northern China, meanwhile, have extremely bad air. The air gets better moving south in China. Air-quality stations in Japan are usually green, which is the best category. North Korea is blank, because there are no data. The overall pattern is clear: Areas with the worst air quality in northern China are surrounded by a zone of bad air that wraps over the Korean Peninsula. Air quality is moderate in Taiwan and most of the southern rim of China, and good in Japan. This pattern suggests that fine dust and pollution from northern China are carried over Korea by prevailing winds from the west but weaken as they pass over Korea and the East Sea on the way to Japan. This is the same weather pattern that blows yellow dust from the Gobi Desert over northern China and then Korea. If China is the main cause of poor air quality, the South Korean government needs to raise the issue with China diplomatically. China is no doubt aware of the problem because the core of the bad air sits near its capital, Beijing. At some point China’s leaders should begin to worry about whether their capital and large swaths of the country with hundreds of millions are people will become uninhabitable.
South Korea can appeal to the goodwill of China’s leaders, but that is about it. Instead, it should focus on developing an effective policy at home. Developing a plan to move away from fossil fuels is the first step. South Korea has a history of achieving big national goals, and it can apply that spirit to developing alternative sources of electricity. Continued investment in public transportation and infrastructure to support electric cars will help reduce the number of gasoline-powered cars on the road.
The more immediate concern is the health of children. The government should move quickly to ensure that schools have advanced air filtration systems and that buildings are altered to keep as much of the bad air out as possible. At the same time, the government needs to sponsor research projects to determine the scope of the problem and measure progress in combating it. Research on the sources of the pollution is important to finding a solution, but research also needs to be conducted to evaluate possible health problems of breathing highly polluted air over time.
Finally, the government should include environmental cooperation in the list of areas for possible collaboration between South and North Korea. The two countries can work together to push China to act.
None of this will be easy or cheap, but with the health of millions potentially in the balance, there is no other choice.