Korea finds its air quality, much like itself, sandwiched between Japan and China

Good news for Korea’s more health conscious residents: Seoul and the rest of the nation are nowhere near as polluted as Beijing or Delhi. However, tempering any would-be celebration is that fact that the country’s air was emphatically poorer than its neighbor to the East, Japan’s.

The NGO Clean Air Asia’s ‘Hairy Nose’ map (it’s pretty much what it sounds like) shows Korea almost exactly divided between the ‘Good’ (19 out of 37 cities) and ‘Moderate’ (the remaining 18) rankings. Some of the worse scoring regions are the central Gyeongi area (although Seoul city itself is ranked as Good, which comes as a bit of a surprise to some of us living here) and a clutch of South-Eastern Industrial cities (again however, Busan City itself scores Good). No cities in Korea were ranked as ‘Poor’ ‘Very Poor’ or ‘Critical’.

This satellite image shows dust and pollution over northeastern China. South Korea has long blamed China for its pollution woes. Pic: AP.

China however collects a great number of these unwanted definitions, with only a spread of cities along the Southern Coast, stretching from Hong Kong to Hainan, scoring ‘Moderate’ or ‘Good’.  Lanzhou in the far west is the biggest loser, being the only city outside of the Indian Subcontinent to be ranked as ‘Critical’. Beijing is ranked Very Poor, confirming last month’s widely seen smog-filled photos.

China’s increasing pollution problems has long been a concern in Korea as it is, rightly or wrongly, seen as contributing to their own air problems, most notably seen in the infamous ‘yellow dust’. China argues that it is not to blame, but seeing a sea of red (indicating Poor or Very Poor) cities lying just 540km from Jeju will do little to convince Jejuites and other Koreans that the island’s recent increase in pollution is not the fault of China’s.

Korea’s clear successes in comparison to China are matched however in their distance behind the undoubted ‘good boys’ of the map, Japan. From Fukuoka all the way to Sapporo, the Island chain is almost the perfect picture of a healthy, fresh air, only let down by Tokyo-satellite city Saitama and its yellow ‘Good’ rating.

So what is Korea doing to tackle the issue?

Not much currently. Despite setting lofty ideals in the Clean Air Conservation Act, Korea has large concerns over its abilities to meet its own energy needs. Pair this with no real national desire to slow down economic and industrial development (especially in the current world economic climate) and it seems clean air is not the top of the previous, or the next, government’s concerns. Just last month the go-ahead was given for four companies to construct six new, private coal-burning power plants around the country. The Environment Ministry was quick to speak out telling Yonhap:

The rise in the expected amount of emissions means that the government will miss its voluntary commitment, which could negatively impact the country’s credibility in the international community….The government also set a goal of reducing emissions from power generation by 26.7 percent, but it would be impractical if the new plan for the power supply is implemented.

Elsewhere in Asia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei can be pleased with their mostly ‘Excellent’ output, whilst India and Bangladesh are the real losers of the map, almost completely blanketed in ‘Critical’ and ‘Very Poor’ scores. There was no information for Vietnam, Laos or North Korea.