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Air Quality and Regional Co-operation in South Korea
By Tae Yong Jung

South Korea’s air has improved remarkably over the past 20 years. According to data from the air pollution monitoring network system, the annual average concentrations of particulate matter of 10 micrometers or less diameter (PM10) nationwide and of PM2.5 in Seoul have decreased. The annual average concentration of fine dust also has gradually decreased. However, domestic concentrations of fine dust are still about twice as high as in developed countries such as the United States and Europe.


In addition, the number of days with high concentrations of fine dust has been increasing. In 2017, the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced five fine-dust warnings for a total of 10 days; in 2018, it increased to eight times and 18 days. In particular, the concentration of fine dust is highest in winter and early spring, from December to March. In March 2019, unprecedented high concentrations of fine dust occurred in the Seoul metropolitan area for seven consecutive days. The PM2.5 in Seoul soared to 135µg/m3. As the high concentration of fine dust occurs, anxiety and worry are increasing. To prevent such high concentrations, domestic measures to reduce PM10 and PM2.5 are urgently needed. Bu this dust comes from both Korean and foreign sources blowing in from west of the Korean Peninsula.


In response, the government has been implementing emergency reduction measures, such as restricting the operation of vehicles in high-density cities since 2018, but there is a limit to how much air quality can be improved as a one-time measure when the concentration of fine dust has already increased.


Domestic air quality measures


In the case of the high concentration of fine dust that began March 1, the government immediately implemented emergency reduction measures. However, despite the measures, the high dust levels caused enormous inconvenience and anxiety for the people. The unprecedented disaster-level fine dust outbreaks went beyond government-level fine dust measures and led the National Assembly to call for the establishment of a national organization for coping with dust and climate change through international co-operation. President Moon Jae-in’s administration embraced these proposals on March 12, 2019. The National Council on Climate and Air Quality (NCCA) was officially launched on April 29, 2019. It is chaired by former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.


The NCCA’s national policy proposal takes a step-by-step approach. First, it focuses on short-term tasks that can bring relief from fine dust immediately, and then approaches the tasks that require medium-to-long-term discussions and solutions. In order to drastically reduce the amount of fine dust between December and March when the high concentration of fine dust occurs, the NCCA aims to visually improve fine dust days and the highest daily pollution levels by focusing on seasonal management measures.


The NCCA plays a pivotal role in taking measures that can be understood and led by citizens. Current policies initiated by the Environment Ministry on fine dust were not participatory and did not include civil servants, experts or the general public. In response, the updated NCCA policy proposal has a formal channel for public participation. Since the citizens present their opinions through the deliberations of the National Policy Participation Group, national debate and public opinion polls, it is possible to formulate a policy that the public could endorse. Key policy measures in three major source sectors will be briefly summarized below:


Industrial sector. Except for power generation, the industrial sector consumes the most fossil fuel energy, and as a result, emits the highest amount of pollutants. In terms of the emission characteristics of the industrial sectors, including power plants, large workplaces emit 62.7 percent of total industrial pollutants. Therefore, special management of these large workplaces is necessary. Among large workplaces, power plants, steel factories, petroleum processing facilities and cement factories account for 87.7 percent of emissions. To investigate these large workplaces, a public-private joint inspection team with more than 1,000 people was formed to focus on 44 industrial complexes and densely populated areas. Strong financial support for small — and medium-sized businesses with annual emissions of less than 10 tons to reduce fine dust and harmful gases was planned. In addition, customized technical support teams, consisting of the Environment Agency, local government, the National Institute of Environmental Research, the Korea Environment Corporation, and local experts, have been set up to support them technically. A concrete reduction plan by industry type was designed to take into consideration the characteristics of each industry. Periodic evaluation of the implementation of the reduction plan will be carried out and basic charges for compliance with reinforced special standards will continue. Real-time disclosure of results will begin in December 2019 to build public trust and spur further reductions in PM emissions.


Power generation sector. In this sector, the shutdown of coal-fired plants, adjustment of operation rates and demand management could all be options. Coal-fired power plants that generate high emissions need more stringent management during high concentration seasons, for example. Power generation accounted for 12 percent of South Korea’s total fine dust emissions in 2016, mostly from coal-fired power plants. While the power sector only occupies 0.4 percent of the total industrial area, its fine dust emissions account for 18.7 percent of the total, the highest source of fine dust pollutants. In particular, coal plants account for 33 percent of the total number of power plants, but fine dust from coal plants belches out 93 percent of all power-generation emissions. In the meantime, the government has been promoting policies to eliminate old coal power plants and reduce the operations of coal power plants during high-concentration periods. First, the government is working to abolish coal-fired power plants that are more than 30 years old, and promote policies to prohibit the construction of new coal power plants in favor of Liquefied National Gas (LNG) as a fuel. Second, the government has been reducing the operations of coal power generation facilities. Operations at older plants are regularly suspended by 20 percent during the fine dust concentration season (March-June) and will continue to have their operations limited until the abolition of those plants. Third, the use of eco-friendly fuels has been expanded. To promote cleaner energy, the tax system for bituminous coal and LNG has been adjusted to generate an advantageous structure for LNG power plants. Demand management policies and programs are also being implemented.


Transportation sector. In 2016, the transportation sector accounted for 29 percent of total PM emissions. Of these, diesel vehicles, construction machinery and ships are the main sources of emissions, accounting for over 90 percent of the sector. In particular, diesel fuels contribute to the generation of fine dust nationwide, ranking fourth among all sources of emissions. However, it ranks first in large cities such as the Seoul metropolitan area. Currently, the central and local governments are promoting policies such as limiting vehicle operations and implementing an automobile emissions rating system to reduce air pollution. Use of vehicles that emit a lot of air pollutants is limited during high concentration emergency periods or in certain areas. In the case of emergency reduction measures, the operation of vehicles with emission level 5 that emit a lot of fine dust is restricted, and operation in metropolitan areas is always restricted. Recently, the Seoul Metropolitan Government designated Hanyang Doseong as a green traffic promotion zone and restricts the operation of emission level 5 vehicles in the area. In order to regulate vehicle operation, it is important to classify which vehicles are to be regulated. The government classifies all vehicles into five grades based on pollutant emissions by age and fuel type. In the case of vans and commercial vehicles, it is necessary to allow exceptions up to 1.33 million units. Even if low-pollution measures are first applied to freight trucks, it is difficult to take low-pollution measures depending on local government budget constraints. In addition, if high fine-dust concentration days are forecast during the seasonal management period, a code system is implemented to restrict the use of odd-number license plates to odd-number days and vice versa. This measure will be implemented in addition to the restrictions on level 5 vehicles in cities with populations of 500,000 or more. Restrictions on vehicle operations may result in a backlash from owners, however, diesel vehicles are the largest source of fine dust in large cities. In addition, the burden on owners who use diesel vehicles for a living is currently shared by expanding financial support for low-pollution measures such as junking older cars and installing abatement devices. Vehicles that fail to implement abatement measures are subject to operating restrictions.


Regional co-operation


Fine dust and air pollution are transboundary issues that require regional co-operation. But in Northeast Asia, regional co-operation measures similar to the European Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP), are unlikely to be applied in the short term. Therefore, as a preliminary step to establishing an institutional multilateral co-operation system, it is necessary to recognize first that regional co-operation is needed to solve the fine dust problem at the local, national and regional level. Two approaches could be considered. First, various collaborative measures have been arranged bilaterally between China and South Korea. The two countries signed 16 documents in the form of agreements and letters of intent from 1993 to 2019, and have carried out co-operative projects based on those agreements. Representative co-operation projects that have been utilized to deal with fine dust problems so far include air pollution prevention demonstration projects, the Korea-China air quality joint research group and operation of a real-time sharing system of air quality measurement information. But in the future, efforts should be made to establish a joint action co-operation system in which both countries can cope intensively with high concentrations of fine dust, which creates disaster-type pollution.


In order to prepare for a breakthrough in practical co-operation in the future, the two countries will need to establish an action system to reduce fine dust jointly during the high concentration season. First, it is necessary to establish a network to actively share information on high-concentration forecasts and warnings and emergency reduction measures. To this end, a web-based platform that shares key information such as source inventory, national air quality monitoring information, long-distance movement and impact modeling, and short-term warning information is needed, including joint development of an integrated air pollution assessment model. There is also a need to strengthen co-operation between local governments in both countries. Representative cities in South Korea and China, including Seoul and Beijing, could co-operate during dust season. In addition, the two countries should use the fine dust issue as an opportunity to strengthen technical co-operation through demonstration projects. It would be helpful to use the construction of smart cities to gather interactive and co-operative data on air, climate, energy and other factors.


Expanding co-operation on environmental technology can also induce the active participation of private companies with excellent technology to support contracted projects. Efforts should be made to jointly reduce fine dust in industrial complexes and port areas, including the establishment of low-carbon blue-sky industrial complexes and eco-friendly harbors. Recently, ecological industrial parks have emerged that solve environmental problems while reinforcing industrial competitiveness through use of waste management technology to produce energy, for example. The two countries could consider co-operative projects to develop such an industrial complex. In addition, it may be a good co-operation project to jointly establish eco-friendly ports by exchanging information and technology on air pollution management in port areas of both countries.


Until institutional and regional co-operative measures are established as a realistic option, a partnership to share international best practices to tackle fine dust must be considered. For example, an annual international meeting on regional air quality could be held by various stakeholders such as local municipalities, businesses and civil society to share best practices in dealing with fine dust. In particular, it is necessary for this partnership to operate as an open process without any constraint on membership to attract more international participation. In addition, successful cases of fine dust resolution in China can enhance the understanding of China’s best practices for the general public and should be included. Under the framework of a best-practice partnership, specific co-operation projects may lay the foundation for enhancing mutual understanding between South Korea and China. In particular, best practices in the field of high-density fine dust prevention and emergency response, will contribute to building co-operation and trust between the two countries. This is a first practical step toward establishing a multilateral co-operation system in Northeast Asia.


Back to Issue
    Over the last two decades, great strides have been made in improving air quality in South Korea. But there are limits to what domestic policy measures can accomplish. The concentration of fine dust particles during ‘dust season’ is a growing problem in the country with demonstrated negative health impacts. While measures are being taken by the central government, writes Tae Yong Jung, the proximity of China and the spillover effects of China’s massive dust problem require a regional approach, which is only just beginning.
    Published: Dec 26, 2019
    About the author

    Tae Yong Jung is a professor at the Graduate School of International Studies, and a director of the Center for Global Sustainability at Yonsei University, South Korea. This article is based on an earlier report, “Policy Proposal by the People,” by the National Council on Climate and Air Quality, Republic of Korea (2019).

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