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Gov’t targets diesel to decrease PM emissions

June 06,2016
A new plan to lower pollution caused by particulate matter will enforce strict emissions tests on diesel-fueled vehicles and limit the number of old diesel vehicles entering the city if they do not have modern filters, the government announced last week.

But some experts have questioned whether the plan can actually reduce the supply of diesel vehicles, especially since a proposal by the Ministry of Environment to raise the price of diesel has been left out of the new plan. Additionally, some market experts have argued that in order to really bring down the level of airborne pollutants, restricting the use of diesel vehicles isn’t enough.

“There have been public health concerns regarding fine dust, which has recently become an issue because the high levels have been seen more frequently and the situation shows little sign of improvement,” said Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn while announcing the government’s plan. “Considering the growing influence of fine dust emitted from diesel cars, we have decided to raise standards on the management and production of diesel cars as well as the entry of such cars into the city.”

He added, “We have also significantly raised supplies of environment-friendly transportation including CNS buses, electric cars and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.”

One of the regulations proposed is to fine the owners of diesel vehicles 500,000 won ($430) if they fail to comply with emissions standards.

The government has decided to change its emissions standards from allowing 15 percent to only allowing 10 percent of volume by 2018. This means the owners of diesel vehicles that have been manufactured since 2009 will have until then to meet the new requirement. If vehicle emissions exceed government standards, the vehicles in question must be installed with low-emitting systems or entirely changed to run on other forms of fuel such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).

The government will also limit diesel cars that were manufactured before end of 2005 and registered in the greater Seoul area, including Gyeonggi, from entering the nation’s capital when PM levels go up. This is expected to encourage owners of outdated diesel cars to get rid of their vehicles or have them updated.

The plan is also intended to encourage buyers to purchase environmentally-friendly vehicles through various benefits including discounts on parking and expressway toll fees. The government’s goal is to increase the sale of electric vehicles to 480,000 units per year by 2020, or 30 percent of all cars sold annually. In promoting such vehicles, the government hopes to establish 3,100 electric-vehicle charging stations, which is 25 percent of the current number of gas stations across the country.

“Within the next 10 years we will change to resemble today’s major European cities,” said Yoon Seong-kyu, Environment Minister. He added, “Fine dust is a problem that can be improved with short-term solutions.”

The government has decided to tackle the issue of diesel vehicles first because of their relatively high level of contribution to pollution. According to the National Institute of Environmental Research’s 2013 study, 30 to 50 percent of PM comes from outside Korea, and when levels are high, this can be as much as 60 or 80 percent. Among domestic contributors, 41 percent came from production plants and waste disposal sites. Diesel was only the fourth-biggest contributor, accounting for 11 percent of PM emissions.

But when narrowing the scope to greater Seoul, diesel vehicles are the greatest contributors at 29 percent.

Yet sales of diesel vehicles have been growing rapidly thanks to low fuel prices, which are roughly 85 percent of gasoline prices, and various promotional benefits offered by the automotive industry. Thanks to strong lobbying, the government has allowed the sale of diesel-powered sedans since 2005. Since then, imported brands like BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen have campaigned “clean diesel” technologies.

Even the country’s largest automaker, Hyundai Motor Group, joined the trend. It introduced the Sonata, which has a 1.7-liter diesel engine, while Kia Motors’ new K5 runs on a diesel-fueled U2 engine.

Automobile enthusiasts were especially excited about the introduction of Sonata’s 1.7-liter diesel engine, as the model was the company’s flagship passenger car.

As a result, newly-sold diesel cars exceeded 50 percent of all sales for the first time last year. According to the Korea Automobile Manufacturers Association, newly-sold diesel cars accounted for 52.5 percent of total sales, or 962,000 units out of the 1.82 million cars sold, whereas gasoline cars only accounted for 37.2 percent.

This is a stark contrast to 2011, when gasoline cars accounted for 54.3 percent while diesel cars only took up 33.9 percent.
Since late last month, the environment ministry has been trying to raise diesel prices in the hopes of discouraging car buyers from buying diesel-fueled cars.

However, this move was strongly opposed by the finance ministry and the energy ministry, which have argued that this would have the greatest impact on lower-income households, whose livelihoods strongly depend on diesel-powered commercial vehicles. Also, they argue, the costs of overall transportation and retail businesses would go up.

The second-hand market is also expected to be hit hard by the government’s move to curbing diesel car sales since 40 percent of all cars sold in the market are diesel cars.

Even the Saenuri Party last week expressed their opposition to raising diesel prices.

Korea’s fine dust concentration was one of the highest among the 34 OECD member countries in a study released by the World Health Organization in early May. The study looked at 3,000 cities in 103 countries. Seoul ranked 55th among the 96 cities in terms of its PM 2.5 micron levels, which is the size of the dust that can negatively impact one’s respiratory tract.

However, when only considering OECD member countries, Korea ranked 30th. Places that ranked below Seoul included Ankara, Warsaw and Budapest. The cleanest city was Wellington, New Zealand with a PM 2.5 level of only 6 micrograms per cubic meter.

Through the reduction of outdated diesel cars manufactured before 2005, the Korean government is hoping to bring down Korea’s PM level to 18 micrograms per cubit meter by 2026. This is the same level as Paris. Meanwhile, London’s level is 15 micrograms per cubic meter. These levels, however, are still above the WHO’s recommendation of 10.

“The particulate matter issue should be approached as an environmental and security issue,” said Chung Suh-yong, Korea University professor on international studies. “A meeting on the environment should be held by the three North Asian countries — China, Korea and Japan.”

Yoon Sun-jin, Seoul National University professor of environmental studies, said the government needs to come up with a way of both reducing PM levels and greenhouse gas emissions.

The Korean Society for Atmospheric Environment, which is the nation’s largest organization with over 3,000 members, has expressed their disappointment with the government’s decision to ignore their perspective by raising diesel prices.

In a statement released on Sunday, the organization said the current government measures are only focused on PM and would not be sufficient in addressing the dangers caused by high concentrations of carbon dioxide and ozone gases.

Some market experts argue that even reducing the number of diesel vehicles might not have a huge impact in reducing PM, considering its overall contribution is only 10 percent nationwide.

Nevertheless, doing so could still be constructive considering how much impact it has in the nation’s capital.

“When you look at PM dust pollution in the greater Seoul area, Seoul and Gyeonggi areas surrounding the nation’s capital were particularly bad,” said Koo Yoon-suh, environmental engineering professor at Anyang University. “In particular, the carbon dioxide pollution in downtown Seoul was severe.”

Particulate matter that is not even one-twentieth of a hair in width can cause respiratory problems and lead to bigger health issues including risk of stroke and heart attack.

“Even among the ultrafine dust, those emitted by diesel-fueled cars are the most toxic,” said Jang Young-kee, environmental engineering professor at the University of Suwon.

BY LEE HO-JEONG, KANG CHAN-SU [lee.hojeong@joongang.co.kr]


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