The Asian continent is home to some of the highest concentrations of tiny particles—known in the scientific community as PM2.5. The pollution is the consequence of multiples factors. Asian countries blame each other and deny being responsible for the climatic changes and the environmental situation.
If residents of Seoul wake up in the morning you may think it is a foggy day; the air is thick enough to obscure your view from your home. The day starts and you will see the same fashion among citizens these days: surgical style masks.
However, this fog is not what you think it is; it is much more dangerous since every year, 18,000 people are thought to die from pollution related illnesses in South Korea, according to the World Health Organization.
In the first week of March this year -2019-, the levels of PM2.5 were hitting records. The same month, the Government declared air pollution a "social disaster."
What is PM2.5?
Particulate Matter, PM 2.5 are microscopic particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter which are considered particularly harmful to humans because they are small enough to lodge deep into the lungs and pass into other organs.
Yerin a CUK Korean student said, ¨ Fine dust pollution levels are way too high –especially in spring- so we are advised to wear a mask to protect ourselves from the pollution.¨ She also explained that she checks the news to know whether the pollution level is high or not.
A 2018 study by the Ministry of Environment found 97% of Korean adults felt physical or psychological pain due to the fine dust. Sixty percent thought the problem was “serious,” while another thirty percent thought it was “extremely serious.”
Citizens and some media in Korea see a clear responsibility for the struggle with the fine dust: China.
Park Yeong-beom a CUK Korean student thinks that micro dust is the problem, he said that he did his research and he found out that China was releasing gas that damages the ozone layer, "That’s why around Korea or China we have weird weather these days." However, Park doesn’t blame China for all the pollution, saying that it’s a shared fault.
The mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, said earlier this year that environmental researchers had concluded that China was responsible for 50-60% of South Korea's pollution problem.
Regulations in South Korea such as limiting the number of vehicles on the streets or reducing the dust from construction sites, the government even tried to make artificial rain early this year to wash away the dust in the air.
"I heard that China has moved their factories to the east side of their country –closer to Korea-. I cannot say China is 100% responsible for fine dust, but I think China is a major factor"
However, all the precautions taken are not 100% effective, since in summer the majority of the fine dust particles are brought in on westerly winds from China’s deserts and factories. This is one of the reasons why the collaboration with China is essential to improve the air conditions.
The environmental crisis has created problems with its neighboring country. The Seoul Research Institute of Public Health and Environment said that China is responsible for between 50% and 70% of fine dust pollution in the Seoul area -2019-, home to almost half the country’s population. Experts say the particles, from Chinese deserts and factories, are carried to the Korean peninsula by prevailing westerly winds.
Moon Jae-in, President of South Korea, in a committee headed on March 21 said, "Fine dust is not just a domestic issue, but a problem related to China." Also, Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung said, "It is clear that China is a factor." –of the pollution in his country-.
On the other hand, in the same month, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said, "I wonder if the South Korean side has any basis that its smog is from China." He said that the fine dust have been higher in Seoul than in Beijing lately.
Kristine a CUK Chinese student, said, "We –China- should be responsible for the international environment and call on all countries to work together to protect the evironment and reduce pollution."
China contributes to around 30% of all global emissions, while the United States emits almost 14%. Also, in the graph you can see South Korea in 9th place.
What are polluting emissions?
They are measured in equivalent tons of CO2 (Carbon dioxide), which is considered the first component of Greenhouse Gases.
Kim Da Hye a CUK Korean student said, "Korea had been experiencing more days of fine dust, which come from neighboring countries, especially China, since it has a lot of factories that affects the air quality."
Overall, pollution does not affect all cities in China, "Some big cities in China are polluted seriously, like the smog, but in my hometown –Longquan City- has a very good environment and there is no pollution," said Kristine.
Chinese pollution is not only man-made, but it is also natural. It is shown that the mix of power generation, ground transport, industrial gases, agriculture and residential and commercial emissions affect the air, producing pollution, as fine dust. The consequence of it is premature mortalities and bad air condition.
Park Yeong-beom said, "It hurts –the fine dust- feels like salt. If you pass a tissue through your nose sometimes is black, it is crazy." He also thinks that after some years the majority of the people will die of cancer if no one does something about fine dust.
In a study published in The Science Advances journal, conducted by an international team of researchers from five countries, including Deliang Chen, a professor of physical meteorology at the University of Gothenburg and a Coordinating Lead Author of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found out that the pollution in China as a whole has begun to decline, but that greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase.
The study also shows that at the beginning of the economic growth of China, now it seems to have more awareness about the environment. Adding that China has improved in 12 of the 17 SDGs during the last 40 years, while major problems still exist in the other five.
"If Seoul only blames the impact brought by transmission -from China- and refuses to look at its own problems, it will miss the best opportunity to combat air pollution," said Liu Bingjiang -the head of the air quality management department of China's Ministry of Environmental Protection- in a interview held in January. He also mentions that China's air quality has improved by more than 40% since 2013, and called for Asian countries to work together.
Regardless the quality of the air has improved in China, the pollution keeps –and is getting worse- haunting the country and their neighbors. According to the 2018 World Air Quality Report released by AirVisual, mainland China had the 12th-highest average PM2.5 concentration and South Korea ranked 27th.
In this way, South Korea is not only arguing with China about the responsability of the pollution, but also is taking the responsability for its own contribution to the problem.
Recently, South Korea announced that this month –December- will close a quarter of its coal-fired plants over winter to decrease the pollution. Where 14 plants would be idled until February, in this way, the coal suspensions will decrease dust emissions by 44% as Korean Energy Ministry said.
The main reason of South Korea of taking these measures is to avoid the struggle they had at the very beginning this year, where the situation was critical for the environment alerts.