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[Weekender] Air pollution thrust onto presidential election agenda

Environmental issues have rarely received attention in South Korean elections, but the nation’s worst-ever air pollution in the first three months of this year has changed that.

With slightly over a month left to the May 9 presidential election, major contenders are releasing pledges on tackling the aggravating fine dust problem, facing conspicuously growing public awareness and voter demand.

With a slew of mobile apps providing nearly real-time updates on air quality, many pollution-conscious citizens, and eligible voters, are paying close attention to what their next leader will do to fix the problem. 

Presidential candidate Sim Sang-jeung of the progressive Justice Party speaks during a protest aginst air pollution on April 2 in Seoul. (Yonhap)
Presidential candidate Sim Sang-jeung of the progressive Justice Party speaks during a protest aginst air pollution on April 2 in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Late last month, front-runner Moon Jae-in of the largest political group, the Democratic Party of Korea, announced his election pledge on the matter, vowing to take tougher measures on domestic air pollution, shift the energy policy drastically from fossil fuels to clean energy and seek cross-border actions in cooperation with China.

“Blue skies and clean air are what our children deserve,” Moon said, promising that he would introduce stricter air quality standards for children to be applied for day cares, kindergartens and schools.

Revealing he received over 2,000 text messages from voters concerning air quality, he promised to pursue the air problem as one of his top priorities, if elected. 

Ahn Cheol-soo of the centrist People’s Party, second in the polls, stressed that South Korea alone could not solve the fine dust issue.

“Since a lot of the particles come from China, the matter has to be resolved with diplomatic means,” he said, adding that Korea’s “foreign policy must cover environmental issues.”

The candidate said that he would invest in scientific research on air pollution and create a task force comprising field experts to come up with countermeasures.

Yoo Seong-min of the conservative Bareun Party has stressed a low-carbon economy as the ultimate way to fight the dust.

While noting the risks of nuclear power plants, he said political groups should take the lead for the country to make a major shift toward low-carbon resources.

“By not giving up on coal, the country will only aggravate the fine dust problem,” he stressed.

Last month, Sim Sang-jeung of the progressive Justice Party released an election pledge booklet in which she explained her goal of lowering Korea’s power consumption level to below the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average by 2030 and putting an end to nuclear power generation by 2040.

“We will increase the portion of new renewable energy to 40 percent by 2040 and adopt a taxation scheme on use of energy that pollutes our world such as thermal power or nuclear power,” Sim said in the booklet.

While the conservative Liberty Korea Party’s presidential nominee Hong Joon-pyo has yet to issue a concrete pledge with regard to the fine dust problem, sources say he would regard solving the fine dust issues as a considerable task.

Hong, the current South Gyeongsang Province governor, served as chairperson of the parliament’s environment and labor committee in 2007.

By Kim Da-sol (ddd@heraldcorp.com)
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