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[Robert Rudolf, Sijeong Lim] Korea’s fine dust crisis: Time to face the music and be responsible

Spring has come, but a thick layer of smog hasn’t given way to a clean breeze in many Asian countries. Hazardous levels of dust and fine dust have become one of the most salient social issues in Korea as well as a major political issue. Citizens are taking to the street -- with some wearing gas masks -- to demand their right to clean air.

So where does this smog all come from? Scientific studies estimate that roughly half of it is attributable to various domestic sources while the other half comes from China.

China factor

Unlike the relative stability of domestically-induced dust, the portion coming from China varies systematically by weather condition. This makes the China factor noticeable. On warm days, when the wind blows from the west, dust levels increase substantially. On cold days, when polar winds blow down from the Russian Far East, the air feels notably cleaner. This is why Koreans increasingly blame China for its “dirty” methods of production and petition the government to officially protest against China’s government.

China understandably wants to avoid being blamed for potential externalities of its own economic miracle, particularly in a time when positive economic news is rare. The Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment has simply dismissed Korea’s accusation.

Therefore, blaming takes the smog nowhere. The politics of blame, however, is a familiar and often quite effective strategy in electoral politics. Combining blaming with the provision of tangible goods to voters sounds like an even better strategy. In March 2019, the Korean parliament passed a set of bills that designate the problem a “social disaster,” which enables the government to draw from emergency funds to fight fine dust. Political parties on both sides called on the government to spend reserve funds on various supplies, such as providing schools with air purifiers and citizens with filter masks. These measures are desperately needed, especially for the underprivileged population, but they are not measures that actually “fight” fine dust.

Rather than allowing politicians to prey on their concerns and anxieties, it is time for Koreans to consider how they can take part in addressing the sources of the problem.

Social disaster calls for social responsibility

Let us start with addressing domestic sources. Koreans drive big cars, and the SUV market is booming. SUVs emit significantly more dust than smaller passenger cars. In 2017, the market share of SUVs among total car sales in Korea stood at 33.1 percent; 1 in 3 newly registered cars was an SUV, most of which run on diesel. In comparison, the SUV market share in Japan -- an economy with a bigger territory and a higher gross domestic product per capita than South Korea -- is only 11.9 percent.

People who own SUVs do not necessarily drive every day. When fuel is expensive, people drive less and therefore pollute less. In light of this, one of the most effective means to curb emissions are taxes on gas and diesel. However, when the government cut these taxes last fall, the move was widely welcomed. Few Koreans took issue with the government’s decision. Even before the cuts, these taxes were already lower in Korea than in many cleaner countries that some Koreans now want to move to.

Making matters worse, Korea has produced more energy from coal power plants in recent years than ever before. The rise in coal-fired power generation came as new plants came online en masse in 2017, a legacy of the former Park Geun-hye administration. These power plants, especially aged ones, are another major domestic source of fine dust. As a quick fix, the government has suspended the operation of five coal power plants aged over 30 years from March through June when fine dust is usually at its worst. When it comes to the renewable energy share of primary energy supply, Korea, with a mere 2 percent, ranks last among member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

There are some promising signs though. The Moon Jae-in administration has pledged not to authorize new licenses for coal power plants and to require existing ones to cut emissions by 58 percent by 2030. What incentivizes the government to keep these pledges and make new ones would be its own citizens, who should acknowledge their responsibility and willingly embrace policies designed to share responsibility.

From domestic to global responsibility

So what can be done about the China factor? Here also, we should focus on sharing responsibility. Korea shares responsibility for the Chinese fine dust problem in various ways:

First, Korean firms operate large production capacities in China. The Chinese economy is by far the No. 1 destination for Korean firms’ foreign direct investment. Often these off-shored production steps are more emissions-intensive than the ones the same firms operate in Korea. Those firms take advantage of less strict emissions legislation and enforcement in China, a classic example of the pollution haven hypothesis.

Second, Korean consumers buy cheap consumer goods made in China. Those products would have been less affordable if factories had to meet stricter regulations on emissions. Third, the Korean economy has highly benefited from rapid economic growth in China over the past two decades. Annual Korean exports to China have surged from $18 billion in 2001 to $142 billion in 2017.

If Korea acknowledges that it shares the benefits of Chinese growth, it should also share the costs of internalizing its negative environmental externalities. How? Foreign buyers and investors have played a significant role in driving Chinese manufacturing companies to adopt green process innovation. Korean investors and corporate buyers, too, can use their market leverage to demand cleaner production at pollution intensive facilities in China. They can share the cost of adopting the Environmental Management System by, for instance, helping to install fine dust filtration systems in their supply chain facilities.

They, however, would do so only if their consumers care about clean production and factor it in when making purchase decisions. This is where Korea’s environmental activists can play a vital role. Environmental activists should inform and mobilize Korean consumers to make environmentally responsible decisions in everyday purchases. For instance, naming and shaming Korean companies that disregard environmental responsibility in supply chain management.

However, raising awareness for environmentally friendly production among consumers and investors takes time. Relying solely on market forces will therefore have a limited impact in the years to come. The Moon government has recently pursued increased cooperation on the issue of fine dust with China, which is a welcome move. However, cooperation in how to better live with the problem by jointly restricting power plant operation hours or creating artificial rain is not enough.

The focus should be on tackling the sources via serious cost-sharing. The Korean government could reward firms that engage in the greening of their global supply chains by including it in government procurement criteria or directly subsidizing the activity. The government should also generously sponsor academics and policy experts who envision longer-term environmental cooperation with their Chinese counterparts. Finally, the government should expand its flow of aid to China in the fields of emission reduction and renewable energies. Where would the extra budget for all these measures come from? In a vibrant democracy such as Korea, from the understanding that the real solution to Korea’s fine dust crisis lies in China. And that Korea can do much more to fix it.

Robert Rudolf, Sijeong Lim
Robert Rudolf is an associate professor at the Division of International Studies of Korea University. Sijeong Lim is an assistant professor at the same division. -- Ed.