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China, Korea meet to focus on problem of air pollution

Jan 19,2018
China and Korea hosted the 22nd meeting of the China-Korea Joint Committee on Environmental Cooperation in Jinan, China, on Thursday to discuss the fine-dust problem that seasonally plagues both countries.

The Chinese delegation was led by the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection’s Director General of International Cooperation Department Guo Jing. Korea’s delegation was led by Kwon Sei-joong, director general for climate change, energy and environmental affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The bilateral discussion and research on fine dust will help the two countries come up with solutions together,” said a Korean Foreign Ministry official. “Pointing fingers and asking others to take responsibility does not solve the problem.”

The 24-hour average of PM2.5 fine dust levels in Seoul has exceeded 50 micrograms nearly 10 times since the start of the year, according to Korea Environment Corporation. PM 2.5 fine dust particles are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, about 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair, and can travel through the respiratory tract and reach the bloodstream. The World Health Organization describes fine dust as carcinogenic and recommends exposure of no more than a daily average of 25 micrograms.

The debate over how much fine dust in Korea is from here or outside of the country has been ongoing. The Korea U.S.-Air Quality study, conducted by NIER and the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from May 2 to June 12, 2016, said 52 percent of PM2.5 was due to domestic factors and 48 percent to external factors, of which 34 percent came from China.

Domestic efforts to combat air pollution have come under scrutiny after a new policy by the Seoul city government fueled political debate over local governments’ air pollution policies.

After the Seoul Metropolitan Government implemented for the first time on Monday its emergency fine dust reduction system, which includes free public transportation during polluted days and costs some 4.8 billion won ($4.46 million) daily, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon and Gyeonggi Gov. Nam Kyung-pil argued over the system’s effectiveness.

“The Gyeonggi government provided free anti-pollution masks to the elderly and air purifiers at all day care centers in Gyeonggi,” Nam wrote on his Facebook account on Thursday. “This is what Gyeonggi did with the money Seoul used to provide free public transportation for just two days. Don’t criticize us without cause.”

Nam’s post followed Park’s comment in a press conference on Wednesday, in which Park said, “The Gyeonggi government should be talking ... what has it done to really help air quality while Seoul actually did something for the people?”

There is also a debate over whether the local ban on public officials’ vehicles with even- or odd-number license plates during polluted days should be extended to ordinary citizens.

Seoul, Gyeonggi and Incheon governments and the Ministry of Environment together issue a ban on even- or odd-number license plates of vehicles of public officials whenever the level of PM2.5 exceed 50 micrograms for the day and is projected to exceed 100 micrograms for more than three hours the next day. The ministry and the three local governments reached the agreement last February.

But given that the total number of public officials at the ministry and local governments amount to around 527,000, of whom 45 percent are estimated to drive their own cars, according to the central government, about 119,000 cars are reduced every time the policy is implemented, which is 2 to 3 percent of the total number of cars in Seoul and surrounding areas.

“The Ministry of Environment has considered the decision to make the ban on even- or odd-number license plates legally binding for all,” said an Environment Ministry official. “But this requires a bill to be established on it and for that to happen, we will need a society-wide agreement on such a policy. Complications like this have led to the delay on the decision-making.”

BY YOO JEE-HYE, ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]