The ultrafine dust level (PM 2.5) in Chungju, North Chungcheong Province as of 1:00 p.m. Tuesday reached over three times as high as “very bad” level at 239μg/m³, recording the worst ultrafine dust level in Korea since record keeping began. With fine dust blanketing all over the country, 14 out of 17 cities had “very bad (higher than 76μg/m³)” level of fine dust and three others had “bad (higher than 36-75μg/m³)” level, almost choking people. The government has enforced emergency measures to reduce fine dust for five straight days, but pollutants keep coming from China leave it with no choice but to wait for the wind to blow it away.
Last year, South Korea recorded an average of 24μg/m³ of PM 2.5 particles, the second highest among 36 OECD member countries following Chile. The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that diseases caused by ultrafine dust are responsible for 11,924 premature deaths a year. The high level of ultrafine dust is attributable to diesel cars. Almost 22 percent of ultrafine dust in metropolitan areas is caused by diesel cars. Diesel engines not only emit fine dust but also produce nitrogen oxides (NOx) during combustion, which reacts with oxygen in the air and discharges ultrafine dust. This is why Europe, the home of diesel cars, began introducing bans on diesel cars. On the other hand, diesel cars are called “clean diesel” in Korea, taking up 42.8 percent of the entire vehicles last year.
The special law on fine dust reduction was enforced on Feb. 15. Once emergency measures are issued, “alternate no-driving” system is implemented and old diesel vehicles are banned from the road in Seoul. But fine dust reduction efforts in Seoul are far from sufficient as other municipalities do not have relevant ordinance yet. The number of grade-five emission vehicles of 2.5 tons or heavier, which are banned from the road under the emergency measures, amounts to 2.69 million nationwide and 970,000 in metropolitan areas.
If the government has a strong will to implement tougher measures, it should provide old diesel vehicles with emission reduction equipment or scrap those cars. But the government is reluctant to even talk about the idea for fear of strong resistance from people, whose livelihood is derived from driving diesel cars. Instead, the government is coming up with stopgap measures, whose effectiveness has not even been proved. The government’s will to tackle air pollution is so important as can be seen from Tokyo’s successful example. Back in 1999, Tokyo banned the sales and purchase of diesel cars and increased the diesel price and pushed ahead with the plan despite fierce opposition from the Tokyo Trucking Association. As a result, Tokyo reduced the annual average ultrafine dust level by 55 percent for 10 years from 2001.
People’s health and life hang on resolving the fine dust issue. The Korean government should put in place effective measures first along with strong measures against China. Whatever the difficulties may be, the government should first aggressively reduce the number of diesel cars on the road.