The cloud of fine dust settling over Korea worsens each year, and with the hazy impact of government measures, the chances of seeing clear skies do not look good.
In Seoul, the cubic meter concentration of fine airborne dust -- particles smaller than 10 micrometers in diameter -- increased from 46 micrograms in 2014 to 48 micrograms in 2016. That of ultrafine dust -- particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter -- also rose from 23 micrograms in 2012 to 26 micrograms in 2016.
According to pollution monitoring website AirVisual, the air quality of the capital city was the second worst, trailing only India’s New Delhi on the morning of March 21.
The concentration of fine dust particles in Korea in 2015 was 29 micrograms per cubic meter -- double the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average. The OECD has predicted that Korea will suffer the greatest economic damage and highest premature mortality rate from air pollution among its member nations by 2060.
Korea issued 85 ultrafine dust alerts from Jan. 1 to March 21, up from 41 alerts issued for the same period last year.
People are exposed to ultrafine particulates, dubbed a silent killer, through inhalation. They are deposited in the lungs and may induce cardiopulmonary disease.
A study published in the international journal Nature estimated that about 30,000 people in Korea and Japan died prematurely in 2007 due to ultrafine dust from China.
Facing the dire air pollution situation, the government has not sat on its hands. The former Park Geun-hye administration unveiled measures six times, but they have had little impact on the atmospheric pollution. In June last year, it announced steps including the shutdown of decrepit coal-fired power plants and an alternate-day no-drive system.
But the government still has plans to build nine new coal-fired power plants while closing old ones.
The alternate-day no-driving system is not expected to be very effective.
The system is only applicable to the public sector at present and came into force last month. In Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, the number of cars belonging to the government and public institutions is about 120,000, just 1.6 percent of some 7.5 million vehicles in the area.
To curb traffic emissions more tightly, the Ministry of Environment on Wednesday lowered the ultrafine dust level at which the system is enforced, but driving restrictions will achieve nothing on dusty weekends or holidays.
Loosening up the ultrafine dust requirements to enforce alternate-day travel is a move in the right direction, but the ultrafine dust standards are still too lax. The government limit for ultrafine dust concentration is 50 micrograms per cubic meter, higher than the 35 micrograms in the US and Japan.
Recently data errors were found in reporting the measurements of air quality on a western island, a measurement spot free of domestic pollutants. Measurements were underreported to the ministry for a year and a half due to computer errors, thus underestimating the effect of fine and ultrafine dust from China. The government should correct its clean air policy based on this erroneous data.
Efforts to reduce domestic air pollutants should be omnidirectional. The government needs to strengthen a scheme for scrapping worn out diesel vehicles, sweeten incentives for green cars, replace coal-fired power plants with solar power and wind farms, tighten environmental oversight of industrial facilities, and set up more measurement points across the country.
However, domestic measures alone have their limits in cutting fine and ultrafine dust.
Though the dusty cloud on Korea is caused by many factors, most of it is attributed to smog from China. About 80 percent of ultrafine dust in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province on the dustiest days this spring came from China, according to the National Institute of Environmental Research. Korea should push China diplomatically to clean up the air. It should persuade China with scientific evidence into doing more to reduce air pollution for mutual benefits.