Fine dust is a big problem with elusive solutions
Emergency fine dust reduction measures were ordered for six consecutive days - the longest so far - and President Moon Jae-in Wednesday ordered his cabinet to look into all routes to solutions, including working with the Chinese government to counter Korea’s deepening air pollution problem.
After receiving those marching orders, the government announced additional measures including working with China on artificial rain and even a possible supplementary budget to build a massive outdoor purifier tower, similar to ones built in the Netherlands and China.
The public seems less than impressed, especially considering the petitions being filed on the Blue House website demanding stronger actions.
Even some of the government’s ballyhooed measures to deal with the pollution are inspiring little confidence because of holes in the system that allow people to skirt the regulations.
A particularly big question mark is floating above the issue of making artificial rain - and whether that would, in fact, wash away pollution.
In January, the Korea Meteorological Administration dispatched a plane dedicated to creating artificial rain as an experiment in the Yellow Sea on the west of the peninsula.
It was a bust.
The weather administration said its artificial rain technology is still in the early stages of research when compared to the United States, which has the best technology for creating artificial rain. The gap between the two countries, according to the administration, is a whopping 73.8 percent.
Between 2008 and 2017, the agency was able to make 42 small tests of its technology. This year, it plans to conduct 15 tests.
Experts say the weather agency might have been aware that its tests might not work since in order for cloud seeding to work, silver iodide or dry ice must be dropped above mountainous areas rather than over open seas.
Seoul Science Center director Lee Jung-mo raised that question and said a clear sky after rain is not only because of the rain itself. Wind is needed, too.
“When there is a downpour, microfine dust levels drop 10 percent and fine dust levels by 30 percent .”
Microfine dust, also known as ultrafine dust, are 2.5 micrometers in diameters (PM 2.5) and fine dust is 10 micrometers (PM10).
Lee said. “When there’s so little effect with natural rain, the possibility of clearing the dust through artificial rain is even lower.”
Lee said gusts of wind formed by low pressure areas after rains are the reasons we have clear skies.
Additionally, a single plane can only seed an area of 100 to 200 kilometers (62 to 124 miles), which means to deal with air pollution on the Korean Peninsula, the government would have to dispatch dozens of planes or several hundreds.
And even if China agrees to help Korea, there’s currently no specific data that would prove that China, which is known to be more skilled at artificial rain creation, succeeded.
The air purifier tower is promoting just as many questions.
In 2016, a Dutch design company, Studio Roosegaarde, built a seven-meter (23-feet) Smog Free Tower that can purify up to 30,000 cubic meters (39,238 cubic yards) of air an hour.
China topped that record by building a 100-meter air purifier tower in Xian that can purify as much as 18 million cubic meters of air a day.
However, there are mixed reviews on the actual performance of the towers. Cao Junji, head of research at the Chinese Academy of Science, which built the tower, said last year that the Xi’an tower can reduce PM2.5 levels as much as 19 percent. Currently, on average, it is said to reduce fine dust by 15 percent.
Even a down to earth anti-pollution measure like limiting diesel cars on Korean roads comes with a loophole. Starting last month, all 2.5 ton or larger trucks that runs on diesel were banned from traveling around the greater Seoul area on heavily polluted days. These are trucks built before 2008. The number of such trucks is estimated to be around 1.3 million.
The government will expand the restriction to all diesel vehicles starting in June.
Anyone that violates this law will be subject to a fine of 100,000 won ($88).
Truck owners complained as many depend on their trucks to make a living. Lucky for them, a loophole was found.
Truck owners will be exempted from the government crackdown if they sign up an agreement to install a system that reduces gas emissions.
Last week, 110,000 truck owners applied.
It will take time before the trucks actually install the reduction system because they are eligible for a subsidy from the Seoul city government. But the government only budgeted subsidies for 13,000 trucks.
That will leave the dirty trucks on the road without any chance of reducing their emissions soon.
The government’s odd- and even-day driving system is also being questioned. Under that system, vehicles with odd-numbered license plates can drive every other day, and vehicles with even-numbered plates drive on the other days.
But that system is purely voluntary except for government workers who are supposed to follow the system strictly.
However, it has been found on numerous occasions that government officials and even lawmakers in the National Assembly weren’t following it.
Cooperation with China
But the biggest question is whether China will be willing to help Korea with its dirty air.
One of the measures announced by the Korean Environment Ministry on Thursday was exchanging information on China’s own emergency reduction alerts. That could help Korea prepare for bad pollution before it reaches the peninsula.
“By increasing the forecast from the current three days to seven, we expect to increase the accuracy [of predicting the pollution situation],” said Environment Minister Cho Myung-rae.
However, Cho was asked about China’s denial that the recent pollution crisis in Korea was the result of pollution from China.
“I am well aware over the comment [from the Chinese Foreign Ministry that doubted whether the fine dust came from China],” Cho said.
He added that while the Foreign Ministry may have raised doubts over China’s blame for the recent air pollution, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment might have a different position.
China’s Foreign Ministry’s spokesman Lu Kang on Wednesday raised doubts that the fine dust came from China, adding that there’s no proof and that the cloud of dust over Seoul could have been caused by various factors.
China has maintained such a position in the past even when the two governments held a meeting over the issue.
In January, director generals of both governments’ environment departments held a series of meeting to discuss the worsening air pollution but failed to narrow their different views.
A high-ranking Chinese official even said Korea might lose its opportunity to reduce fine dust by blaming others.
According to the Seoul Research Institute of Public Health and Environment, the recent air pollution was directly affected by air pollution in China.
“In the first two months of this year, China’s microfine dust particle density has increased roughly 23 percent compared to the same period a year ago,” said Shin Yong-seung, head of the Seoul city government’s environment institute, during a press briefing on Wednesday. “During the same time the average microfine dust particle density was 37 micrograms per cubic meters, which is the highest in five years, and there were 23 more days when the fine dust particles was at the ‘bad’ level.
There are four levels to fine dust particles. The lowest level is good, where fine dust particles are between 0 and 15 micrograms per cubic meters. The normal level is between 16 and 35. Health risks go up when the particles reach the bad level, which is between 36 and 75. The very bad level is 76 or higher.
According to the World Health Organization, when the daily fine dust reading is 37.5, the risks of dying of health complication like stroke or heart disease and lung cancer go up by 1.2 percent. And when it goes up over 50, that probability jumps 2.5 percent.
The research institute said in its study it has found that when high-density fine dust occurs in major Chinese cities like Beijing and Shenyang, Seoul’s own fine dust density rises after 12 to 30 hours.
When the fine dust in Beijing reached a level of 231 micrograms per cubic meters at noon of March 2, Korea’s fine dust level was between 72 and 101 just 30 hours later.
One of the reasons China could play a pivotal role in reducing the pollution is because it has 3,500 thermal power plants burning coal, most of which are concentrated on the eastern coastline that faces Korea’s west coast with the Yellow Sea. In comparison, Korea has 60 such thermal power plants.
Burning coal is considered a major contributor to fine dust as it accounts for 15 percent factors contributing to fine dust in Korea, after factories and diesel cars.
Criticism and economic impact
There have been growing frustrations over government inaction on pollution. Improving the air quality was one of Moon’s key presidential campaign promises.
During the presidential race in early 2017, Moon promised to reduce fine dust pollution by 30 percent by the end of his term in 2022. The Environment Ministry earlier this year raised the bar to 35.8 percent.
A month before his election victory in 2017, Moon posted on Facebook that if he could he would want to suck in all the air pollution, a quirky testament to his determination.
“Parents worry when the sky above becomes cloudy, and, if I could, I wish I could suck all of the fine dust,” Moon posted. “[Currently,] all we can do is put masks on our children going off to school.”
He criticized the previous administration saying that the only measure it came up with was sending pollution alerts to people’s smartphone.
“There’s not even a guideline for when our children are playing outdoors,” Moon said.
Those sentiments are boomeranging on Moon, as people petitioned the Blue House saying, as one did recently, “Didn’t you say you wanted to suck all of the fine dust if you could?”
The economic impact is promising to be equally devastating.
A 2017 study by the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade noted that when fine dust particles increase by 10 microgram per cubic meter, major retailers’ sales drop 2 percentage points.
High-tech factories making semiconductors, which have to maintain a dust-free environment, are seeing their ratio of faulty products rise.
According to a study released in December 2016 by Bae Jeong-hwan, a professor of environment economics at Chonnam National University, air pollution could result in social costs amounting to 11.8 trillion won as it not only affects consumption but also industrial activities.
An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study in 2016 had a similar estimation of 10 trillion won, which it said would likely double in 2060 if no actions were taken.
The OECD estimated that by 2060 Korea could suffer a loss of 0.63 percent of its GDP from air pollution or $20 billion, which translates to roughly 22 trillion won. That’s higher than other advanced economies including the EU, which was likely see a GDP loss of 0.11 percent; or the United States, with 0.21 percent; or Japan at 0.42 percent. China, on the other hand, was predicted to face a much larger loss of 2.63 percent of its GDP.
The effect of the air pollution is already felt on businesses like Seoul Land, an amusement on the outskirts of Seoul. Between Feb. 23 and 24, the park was estimated to have 11,981 visitors. A week later - despite March 1 being a national holiday and an extension of the weekend to three days - the number of visitors dropped to 11,573 as the fine dust pollution rose that weekend.
Other measures proposed by the Environment Ministry that could reduce pollution without the help of China include increasing the number of water spraying trucks as well as mobile air pollution monitoring systems. The government might expand the number of coal-fueled thermal power plants whose operations are curtailed on smoggy days from 40 to 60. It may also call for an early closing of two outdated thermal power plants.
The Environment Ministry isn’t the only ones with ideas.
The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transports proposed increasing the cleaning of major infrastructures such as subways while limiting cargo trucks and government vehicles from traveling on roads and banning the operation of outdated construction machinery. The Defense Ministry is offering to retire all jeeps, buses and trucks that were manufactured before 2005 and is installing 60,000 air purifiers in all barracks by next month.
The Blue House has taken its own steps to contribute to reducing air pollution. All Blue House vehicles for official use will be garaged except for seven environment-friendly vehicles.
The Blue House has a total of 51 vehicles for official use, of which six are electric vehicles and one is a hydrogen-fueled vehicle.
The government last year bumped up this year’s budget to counter fine dust.
According to the Environment Ministry, the budget this year for fine dust measures was increased 43.4 percent to 1.36 trillion won from last year’s 951.1 billion won.
The budget includes 120.7 billion won for scrapping 150,129 old diesel cars, up from 93.4 billion won that was spent for 116,169 vehicles in 2018.
Additionally, the government will be spending 5.7 billion won - up from 4.8 billion won last year - in government subsidies to make school buses use liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) fuel. It expects to change 23,000 school buses, up from last year’s 18,000.
In an effort to boost the sales of environment-friendly vehicles to lower carbon emissions, the government will be spending 142.1 billion won, a significant surge from last year’s 18.6 billion won, to double the number of hydrogen fuel vehicles from the current 2,000 to 4,000 while also adding 10 hydrogen filling stations to the current 20.
The Environment Ministry’s budget for distribution of electric vehicles has been raised from last year’s 352.3 billion won to 540.3 billion won.
The goal is to increase the number of EVs from 330,000 to 420,000 and EV charging stations from 1,100 last year to 1,200.
The government has also allocated 12.2 billion won, which is an 18 percent increase from 10 billion won last year, to install factory energy management systems (FEMS) in 20 factories.
BY LEE HO-JEONG, CHAE YUN-HWAN [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Pollution changes how we shop, live and eat