Korea can’t breathe

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Korea can’t breathe

Most of Korea has been choking under suffocating clouds of fine-dust particles and smog for days. In Seoul on Monday, the level of PM2.5 fine-dust particles exceeded the previous record of 99 micrograms per cubic meter, which was set in March 2018. This is the worst level since the pollutant started being tracked in 2015. The air is hard to breathe for everyone. In 1952, smog pollution in London killed over 4,000 people over four days. The air can turn fatal for Korea if this continues. Only the government is calm and sticks to formalities. On Saturday, the Ministry of Environment advised people not to go outside and to wear masks when they do. On Sunday, it banned old diesel vehicles from entering the capital. That’s all.

The government claims that fine-dust pollution has been easing up. But the environment says otherwise. Diesel vehicles are on the rise and coal-based thermal power stations are producing more power due to the Moon Jae-in administration’s relentless push for a nuclear phase-out. The trade war between the United States and China is also adding to these woes. Faced with stiffer trade restrictions, Beijing will most likely soften environmental regulations on Chinese manufacturers suffering from the ongoing trade war. If so, Korea will face greater amounts of smog and fine dust from China.

Beijing hardly cares. On Dec. 2 last year, the Chinese government claimed fine dust in Seoul is mostly home-grown. The Korean Environment Ministry and Seoul city government did not issue any statements to refute this.

Local institutions have confirmed clouds of fine dust coming from China over the skies of the West Sea. Experts generally agree that 30 to 50 percent of fine dust in Korea can be blamed on China. When Korea experiences severe levels of pollution, China accounts for 60 to 80 percent of the problem, experts say. The two governments in June last year set up a center to cooperate on environmental issues, but Beijing does not even share its studies on pollution. Moon must put fine dust on the agenda for summit talks and come up with a practical solution.

More efforts are needed at home, too. Old vehicles should be removed from the roads and buses should be replaced with electric or hydrogen vehicles. The government must come up with more fundamental solutions to keep Moon’s campaign promise to reduce fine dust by 30 percent during his term.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 15, Page 30
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