Time to tackle smog
Recently my family and I visited Mokpo, South Jeolla, for the first time and had a wonderful stay in the coastal city. The active fishing port, the historic architecture from a century ago and the hiking trails near the lively, walkable city center were all very appealing to us.
However, one unexpected problem put a damper on our visit: smog. On the day we arrived, the cold Siberian air kept conditions clear, and we saw lots of stars at night. But as temperatures climbed slightly during the week, the visibility changed dramatically for the worse. I hiked up Mount Yudal on what seemed like a sunny morning, only to find haze in every direction once I reached the top. Even in Mokpo, at the far southwestern tip of the country, we couldn’t catch a break from the smog that affects life in Korea more than ever.
Sure enough, when I checked the air pollution data, the levels across the country were in the “unhealthy” category. And believe it or not, the worst air pollution nationwide at that moment showed up on Jeju Island.
No longer is smog primarily a Seoul problem - in fact, the more air pollution data that becomes available online (see http://aqicn.org/nearest and http://cleanair.seoul.go.kr), the more we can see that the pollution in Korea’s outlying regions is usually just as bad as the Seoul metropolitan area. It is also a much more serious and pervasive problem than the “yellow dust” flows that occur mainly in spring with the winds blowing from the Gobi desert.
Air pollution, unfortunately, has become a year-round national problem, and the culprit is particulate matter: to be more specific, what is called PM 2.5. These are tiny toxic particles in the air, containing a mixture of metals, soot, ashes, chemicals and other industrial pollutants, that are small enough to reach into our lungs. Over the long term, exposure to even slightly high levels of PM 2.5 can cause deadly ailments ranging from asthma, chronic bronchitis, lung cancer and heart disease.
The most important daily weather information in this country is not whether it will be sunny, cloudy or stormy, but the daily PM 2.5 levels. If you check the numbers each day, you’ll find that fluctuations in air quality, often depending on the wind direction, are significant. On good days, the air pollution levels nationwide, even in Seoul, are about the same as levels in the United States, where higher environmental standards and the exodus of manufacturing to other parts of the world have improved air quality in recent decades. On bad days, the PM 2.5 numbers swing closer to the horrific air pollution levels in China. And on typical days, the smog levels hover between these extremes. China really is the main source of the problem - this is more obvious than ever - and all the governments in East Asia need to step up pressure on China to deal swiftly with the problem.
To be sure, the air pollution spewing out of China is a byproduct of the interdependent global economy worldwide demand for low-cost products, and the rising living standards in China are certainly a huge benefit from the country’s recent economic boom. The massive environmental costs, however, pose a silent but grave threat to all of us living in this region - a much more serious threat, day to day, than we acknowledge. Who knows how many children now growing up in East Asia will suffer severe illnesses and shorter lifespans in the years to come, precisely as a result of the unprecedented air pollution levels today?
Decisive steps need to be taken swiftly to reverse the damage. There is a history in the United States of states “downwind” from major industrial polluters suing their neighboring states for air pollution across state borders. In February of last year, Li Guixin, a resident of the northern China city of Shijiazhuang, became the first person in the country to sue the government for failing to lower air pollution, and it is interesting to consider whether international law might create an opening for cross-border litigation against China.
The more promising avenue, though, will likely be collaboration among the region’s governments to spur rapid investment into cleaner and safer energy sources - in every country in the region, not only China. Political leaders, as ever, will make the effort to solve the problem only the citizens push it onto the agenda. We all need to raise our voices and give Mr. Li some urgently needed reinforcement: let’s insist that governments across the entire region address the root of the problem quickly and forcefully. Our health depends on nothing less.
*The author is professor of political science at Yonsei University.
by Hans Schattle