The Newsletter 77 Summer 2017

Fine dust and sustainability in Northeast Asia

Soojin PARK

Winter in Korea is infamous for its harsh cold and bone-dry air. The colorful blooms and budding leaves of spring that follow those long winter months are a welcome presence to many people. For some, however, spring has now become synonymous with wearing dust masks to ward off the dreaded yellow dust and fine dust blowing in from China. The harmful effects of fine dust have come into light in recent years, fueling widespread anxiety over the issue. Fine dust, with a particle size of 2.5μm (PM2.5) and under, infiltrates the body through the skin and the respiratory system, leading to asthma, vascular disease, heart failure, and cancer. According to an article published in the March issue of Nature, 3.45 million people died from issues related to air pollutants worldwide in 2007.1 Qiang Zhang, Xujia Jiang, Dan Tong, Steven J. Davis, Hongyan Zhao, Guannan Geng, Tong Feng, Bo Zheng, Zifeng Lu, David G. Streets, Ruijing Ni, Michael Brauer, Aaron van Donkelaar, Randall V. Martin, Hong Huo, Zhu Liu, Da Pan, Haidong Kan, Yingying Yan, Jintai Lin, Kebin He and Dabo Guan. 2017. ‘Transboundary health impacts of transported global air pollution and international trade’, Nature 543:705-709.  This article highlights the startling fact that Korea, North Korea, Japan, and Mongolia have a collective yearly death rate of 30,900 due to fine dust originating from China. The Batelle Memorial Institute and Columbia University are utilizing satellite imagery to show that the eastern regions of China have the highest concentration of fine dust in the world. These images also clearly indicate that the wind carries the dust into Korean territory.2 Battelle Memorial Institute & Center for International Earth Science Information Network - CIESIN - Columbia University. 2013. Global Annual Average PM2.5 Grids from MODIS and MISR Aerosol Optical Depth (AOD). Palisades, NY: NASA Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC). (accessed 17 May 2017).

Once it was revealed that China was the main cause of air pollution within Korea, some environmental organizations filed lawsuits against China, demanding compensation for damages and losses caused by fine dust. According to the Korean government, an estimated 30-50% of Korea’s air pollutants come from China each year. On the other hand, others argue that measures should first be taken to deal with thermoelectric power plants and vehicle exhaust fumes, which are known to be the leading domestic causes of air pollution. It is nearly impossible to calculate exactly how much fine dust in Korea is produced domestically and how much blows in from China. Before we focus on the place of origin, however, it is essential to take this opportunity to examine the close connection between Northeast Asia and fine dust, as well as the importance of inter-state cooperation in solving this issue.

Distribution of fine dust in Asia (Average of PM2.5 (2001-2010) from the Batelle Memorial Institute and CIEN (2013) by administrative district)

Northeast Asia houses over 15 million people and has a higher population density than any other region in the world. Unsurprisingly, it is also accompanied by a high risk of environmental pollution. The region has been experiencing rapid development over the past few decades, and it is expected that the development will further continue at unprecedented speed in the future. From arid lands to tropical rain forests, Northeast Asia covers a range of diverse climates and ecological areas. Consequently, it is highly susceptible to various types of natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes. According to research conducted by the Asia Center at Seoul National University (based on data from EM-DAT of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters), annual damage costs caused by natural disasters in Northeast Asia increased from $600 million in 1983 to $53.7 billion in 2013.3  In other words, damages jumped an astonishing 86.8 times over a span of thirty years. 1.26 million lives were lost to natural disasters during that time period, and approximately 3.4 billion people across the region were affected both directly and indirectly. By contrast, the global sum of natural disaster damages merely increased seven-fold from $16.7 billion in 1983 to $118.4 billion in 2013. Northeast Asia succeeded in achieving revolutionary economic development, but that victory unfortunately came at the cost of environmental destruction, pollution, and disaster.

As descendents of a common civilization based on Chinese characters, nations within Northeast Asia have historically shared a considerable degree of cultural homogeneity. Over the past century, however, each country has been pursuing individual forms of progress, leading to an increase in economic and political discord. Recent issues such as the territory disputes between Korea, China, and Japan, the threat of North Korea, and the potential of China to overturn the global order have driven political and diplomatic uncertainty in Northeast Asia to its peak. As a result, the region is failing to come together to address environmental dilemmas, despite suffering from the highest level of damage and disaster. It is crucial to recognize that active inter-state cooperation is the key to solving the ever-growing issue of air pollution. Once that cornerstone is established, the gates will surely open for widespread sustainable development in Northeast Asia.

Soojin PARK, Department of Geography, Seoul National University (