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Regional cooperation to bring clean air to South Korea

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Cho Eun-hye takes a rest while walking her Korean Jindo dog, both wearing masks, on a poor air quality day in Incheon, South Korea, 15 March 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Hyun Young Yi).

In Brief

South Korea’s air quality has improved remarkably over the past 20 years. The annual average concentrations of particulate matter (PM) of 10 micrometres or less in diameter (PM10) nationwide and of PM2.5 in Seoul have decreased. The concentration of fine dust has also gradually decreased but still remains twice as high as other developed countries and the number of days with high concentrations of fine dust has been increasing.


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In response, the government has implemented a variety of emergency fine dust reduction measures, such as restricting the operation of vehicles in high-density cities since 2018. But there is a limit to how much air quality can improve when such one-off measures are taken because the concentration of fine dust has already increased and is partly caused by winds blowing foreign sources in from the west of the Korean Peninsula.

The unprecedented disaster-level fine dust outbreak on 1 March 2019 led the National Assembly to call for the establishment of a national organisation for coping with dust and climate change through international cooperation. President Moon Jae-in’s administration officially launched the National Council on Climate and Air Quality (NCCA) on 29 April. Key policy measures in three major source sectors — industrial, power generation and transport — are being implemented.

The industrial sector consumes the most fossil fuel energy after the power generation sector and emits the highest amount of pollutants. Large workplaces emit 62.7 per cent of total industrial pollutants. To investigate these large workplaces, a public-private joint inspection team of over 1000 people focussed on 44 industrial complexes and densely populated areas.

Strong financial support and customised technical support teams were planned to help some small- and medium-sized businesses to reduce fine dust and harmful gases. Taking into consideration the characteristics of each industry, a concrete reduction plan by industry type was designed. Periodic evaluation and real-time disclosure of results began last December to build public trust and spur further reductions in PM emissions.

The power generation sector could be regulated through the shutdown of coal-fired plants, adjustment of operation rates and management of demand, especially during high concentration seasons. Power generation accounted for 12 per cent of South Korea’s total fine dust emissions in 2016, mostly from coal-fired power plants. The government is working to eliminate old coal power plants, reduce operation of all coal power plants and promote policies to prohibit the construction of new coal power plants in favour of liquefied natural gas (LNG) instead. The tax system for bituminous coal and LNG has been adjusted to be more advantageous for LNG power plants.

The transportation sector accounted for 29 per cent of total PM emissions in 2016. Diesel vehicles, construction machinery and ships are the main sources of emissions, accounting for over 90 per cent of the sector’s emissions. Central and local governments are limiting vehicle operations and implementing an automobile emissions rating system to reduce air pollution. The government classifies all vehicles into five grades based on pollutant emissions by age and fuel type. The Seoul Metropolitan Government designated Hanyang Doseong (downtown) as a green traffic promotion zone and restricts the operation of emission level five vehicles that emit a lot of fine dust in the area.

Fine dust and air pollution are transboundary issues that require regional cooperation. But in Northeast Asia, regional cooperation measures similar to the European Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution are unlikely to be applied in the short term. In order to establish institutional multilateral cooperation, it is necessary to first recognise that regional cooperation is needed to solve the fine dust problem at the local, national and regional levels.

Various collaborative measures have already been arranged between China and South Korea. The two countries have carried out cooperative projects based on agreements signed between 1993–2019 including the Korea–China air quality joint research group and operation of a real-time sharing system of air quality information. Future efforts should be made to establish a joint action cooperation system.

The two countries need to establish an action system to reduce fine dust during high concentration seasons by establishing a network to actively share information on high concentration forecasts, warnings and emergency reduction measures. There is also a need to strengthen technical cooperation between local governments in both countries through demonstration projects. The construction of smart cities can also be used to gather interactive and cooperative data on air, climate, energy and other factors.

Expanding cooperation on environmental technology can also induce the active participation of private companies with technology to support contracted projects. Efforts should be made to jointly reduce fine dust in industrial complexes and port areas, including the establishment of low-carbon blue-sky industrial complexes and eco-friendly harbours.

Until institutional and regional cooperation measures can become a reality, a partnership to share international best practice to tackle fine dust must be considered. This partnership must operate as an open process without constraints on membership to attract greater international participation. A best-practice partnership and specific cooperative projects may lay the foundation for enhancing mutual understanding and building trust between South Korea and China. This is the first practical step toward establishing a multilateral cooperation system in Northeast Asia.

Tae Yong Jung is Professor of Sustainable Development at the Graduate School of International Studies, Yonsei University.

A version of this article originally appeared here on Global Asia.

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