Getting serious about dust
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
It is depressing to admit we cannot escape from the fine-dust pollution. China, a huge developing country, cannot afford to completely clean up its air in a short period of time. We have to coexist with the carcinogenic fine dust. Sadly, we have a bad neighbor, but our incompetent government is also a problem.
The Moon Jae-in administration must confess to the public a very uncomfortable truth. Only then can it appeal to the people to accept some pain until its measures work. If it ignores the problem, it will become an unconstitutional government that denies the people’s basic rights to live in a healthy and comfortable environment.
Since its economic reforms began in 1978, China has become the world’s second largest economy by accomplishing rapid growth. But it has faced a nightmare of environmental devastation since it became the largest energy consumer in the world. That’s why Chinese President Xi Jinping desperately led a campaign to protect blue skies from 2013 through 2017.
With the five-year battle, the concentration of ultra-fine dust in Beijing went down to 50 micrograms from 90 micrograms per cubic meters. In 338 cities, the level plunged by 22.7 percent on average. Still, China’s average concentration of fine dust is twice as high as Korea’s. Due to fatigue from the five-year drive, environmental regulations loosened starting last year.
Unfortunately, China is the world’s largest consumer of coal. Its coal-fueled thermal power plants account for nearly half of the world’s. It is 4.5 times higher than India’s, and India is the second largest coal power producer. Even at this moment, coal plants are being built in China one after another. China’s massive demand for coal will not likely change over the next 20 years. It is a hellish scenario that the threat of Chinese fine dust — which accounts for half of the fine dust in Korea — will continue for at least the next two decades.
The Moon administration failed to cope with the worst-ever dust disaster. Moon received the environment minister’s urgent report at 6 p.m., March 5, the fifth day of the government sending emergency text messages to citizens. After the Blue House finally noticed the building up of public rage, the president said, “It is the government’s responsibility to take emergency measures during an emergency.” Related ministers — as if they were waiting for some orders — rushed to elementary schools and construction sites to pretend that they were trying to calm the public.
As a presidential candidate two years ago, Moon promised to reduce the level of fine dust by 30 percent and to create a presidential body to oversee the issue. “If I could, I would breath all the dust children are breathing,” he said.
After he became the president, Moon forgot the pledge of 30-percent reduction and moved the presidential body to the Prime Minister’s Office. Moon had said, “Beyond uneasiness, the people are enraged by the government’s incompetence and laziness!” He must repeat that to himself now.
Although a special law on fine dust went into effect on Feb. 15, no city or province — save Seoul — has drafted ordinances and regulations. If not backed by specific regulations to limit car emissions or cut work hours, the special law is useless.
Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon has never encouraged mayors and governors to draw up related ordinances. The powerless environment minister had a video conference with senior officials of city and provincial governments. And yet, the prime minister said, “The central and local governments must have a strong self-reflection on what they did.” He sounds as if the issue has nothing to do with him.
The public is increasingly refraining from going outside. As consumption froze, self-employed businessmen are suffering. A spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry challenged Korea’s criticism of China, saying, “Is there scientific proof that China has been playing a key role in Korea’s worsening fine dust problem?” That sounds like a warning that Korea must do its part as China’s air is improving.
It is impossible for Korea alone to deal with China. Britain, West Germany and the United States all ignored the demands of their environmental victims — Sweden, Norway and Canada — in the beginning. But the three major polluters changed their positions. Likewise, we need to create a multilateral consultative body as in Europe to resolve the situation with mutual monitoring and cooperation. Cooperation with China, Mongolia, North Korea, Japan and Russia is a must.
To persuade the international community and China, we must take strong domestic measures first. Aged coal-fueled plants should be shut down, and nuclear plants, which produce no dust, must be increased.
The government must also reconsider its nuclear phase-out policy since the public no longer supports it. The administration must reduce our nearly 10 million diesel-fueled cars. It must radically increase the fuel tax and restrict operation of aged cars. The alternate-day travel system — which was proven effective during the 2002 World Cup in Korea — should be applied to all cars.
We must first reduce our domestic emission sources before calling for China’s action. Since Korea faces its worst pollution problem, now is the best time for the government to take strong measures.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 11, Page 31