South Korea, which saw a temporary reduction in fine dust levels amid the COVID-19 pandemic, is suffering from high levels of fine dust again. Ultrafine dust warnings were issued for the first time this fall in Seoul on Sunday and the levels of ultrafine dust remained “bad” for four days in a row from Nov. 12 in the Seoul metropolitan and Chungcheong areas. Emergency fine dust reduction measures were issued in South Chungcheong Province on Nov. 14 and 16 and almost all parts of the country except for Gwangju and Busan had “bad” fine dust levels on Monday.
Up to 80 percent of South Korea’s fine dust particles come from China. Environment authorities say a surge in fine dust concentrations in recent years is attributable to the atmospheric stagnation, which causes the accumulation of airborne pollutants brought in from China on winds from the west. China’s factory utilization rate, which dropped amid the COVID-19 crisis, has recovered almost to 100 percent and the total amount of pollutants coming from China has increased again as people have started to turn on their heating. China’s air quality is said to have improved somewhat this year with the fine dust levels across the country reducing by an average of 11.8 percent until September. As it turns out, however, it was only a temporary illusion created by COVID-19 and the lives and health of Koreans are still damaged by the fine-dust disaster.
When the issue of fine dust coming from China became an urgent national task after the national suffered from the worst fine dust concentrations in spring of last year, the Moon Jae-in administration seemed to be coming up with some fundamental measures. But little progress has been made since then. South Korea and China are having environment ministers’ meeting and working-level talks once or twice a year but the outcomes were no more than information exchange or academic research.
To be sure, there will be no ways to fundamentally block fine dust from China unless China’s industrial and environmental policies change dramatically. However, if China significantly strengthens the pollutant emissions standards for the plants on China’s east coast and makes bold investments on reducing the total amount of emissions, the amount of fine dust currently hitting Korea will be reduced greatly. Since the fine dust crisis is a matter of survival for Koreans, the South Korean government should abandon its submissive attitude and strongly urge China to come up with fundamental solution to reduce fine dust pollution.