On April 2, about 500 women marched at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul, the site of the largest political protests in the country’s history, which ended with the removal and arrest of former president Park Geun-hye. This time, however, protesters gathered to oppose pollution.
The participants belonged to a civic group of about 44,000 mothers called Dust Out, according to the Korea JoongAng Daily newspaper. They demanded the government take action to fight pollution for the sake of their children’s health.
Meanwhile, a 380 per cent jump in nasal sanitizer product sales, a 213 per cent rise in nose masks and a 383 per cent increase in canned air also signalled growing concern over the pollution issue among consumers, according to the newspaper. And their concern is warranted. On March 21, Seoul recorded the second-worst air quality in the world, after New Delhi. Beijing was sixth.
Making matters worse, Seoul said there was not much that could be done about the problem, and claimed that about 80 per cent of the capital’s pollution was external in origin – mostly from China.
The South Korean government has laid the lion’s share of blame on Beijing for years, ignoring the fact that coal and liquified natural gas (LNG) consumption have both skyrocketed over the past decade, according to the South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.
From 2005 to 2014, South Korea’s gas-fired power plants increased their output from 58,000 to 111,700 gigawatt hours, while coal-fired powered plants also increased from 134,900 to 203,800 gigawatt hours.
The government has even blamed cooking habits and automobiles for the pollution, despite the fact that coal power plants have been proven to be the country’s biggest polluters. A government report, released in May 2016, even went as far as to say the leading cause of indoor air pollution was “frying mackerel”.
South Korea now has 53 coal power plants, the Financial Times reported last month. From 2005 to 2015, capacity rose from 17 to about 26 million kilowatts, then last year it spiked to 35 million kilowatts.
“The government is sitting idly by while passing the buck to China,” the Financial Times article quoted Kim Shin-do, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Seoul, as saying.
“Only after we handle our own air pollution problems can we grasp the extent of air pollution or fine dust [coming from] the deserts in China and Mongolia.”
But some of the blame rests with the public, too. Several summers ago, after Seoul shut down the country’s nuclear power plants, the government imposed a temperature limit on all of its buildings in an effort to save energy.
But trying to force workers to keep the temperature inside the buildings above a certain degrees proved unpopular, prompted widespread criticism and was eventually scrapped. Consequently, the government had to use more coal power to pick up the slack.
More recently, in response to public demand, the South Korean government has promised to shut down 10 of its older coal power plants by 2015. However, it also plans to build 20 new ones by 2021.
To be sure, pollution from China and yellow dust being blown into South Korea from Mongolian deserts every spring, do contribute to the poor air quality. But the government’s claim that only about 20 per cent of Seoul’s pollution is locally created compares starkly to Greenpeace’s estimate of between 30 and 50 per cent.
For one thing, yellow dust causes pollution events in Seoul less than 15 days per year on average. Also, yellow dust is at its worst between March and May, but according to a white paper by NASA – published as part of the Korea-US Air Quality project – ozone and carbon emissions are at their worst after the season, around June.
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Moreover, a July 2015 study published in Environmental Research found that the correlation between mortality and particulate matter (PM) in Seoul’s air was not affected by yellow dust storms. That is, yellow dust has not impacted on the health of people living in the city. Part of the reason, however, may be because people take additional precautions on those dusty days.
Min-woo Son, a climate energy campaigner from Greenpeace in South Korea, said things are improving. Following a recent campaign from the environmental group, the government did announce plans to reduce PM2.5 pollution.
But Son said it was too little, too late – after all, the number of coal power plants is still increasing and the newer facilities will have even greater capacity.
“On the surface, the Korean government looks cooperative,” Son said. “[But] the government’s stance is lukewarm.”
The recent demonstrations over former president Park Geun-hye proved that when South Koreans come together, they have enormous power. If they muster the will to address this issue, they can make a difference, and they can start with the May 9 presidential election.
Among the political parties on offer this election, Son said most were “cooperative and active on solutions for PM2.5 pollution and coal-fired plants”.
“But one party, the Liberty Korea Party, still doesn’t have a clear policy on PM2.5 reduction.”