South Korea is in the midst of the country’s first springtime election campaign since 1971. And it has brought the issue of fine particle dust to the fore, as voters are irritated by air pollution in the lead-up to the May 9 vote. At this point, the 60-day race seems to be boiling down to a contest between liberal candidates Ahn Cheol-soo and Moon Jae-in, who both recently released their official platforms on how to tackle air pollution.
Spoiler alert: Their pledges are pretty similar.
Both want to lower the levels of particulate matter that South Korea deems permissible, which are currently more generous than those of the World Health Organization. They want more diplomatic cooperation with China on air pollution (there is an ongoing debate over how much of South Korea’s nasty air blows over from China, and how much is produced here). They want to halt the construction of new coal-burning power plants and promote “environmentally-friendly” plants (They have not specified what the term entails).
On the whole, Moon and Ahn’s pledges aren’t radically different from the Park Geun-hye administration. Online magazine eDaily said that while the two candidates’ pledges are stricter, last year the government issued a similar countermeasure to combat fine particle dust.
“The candidates are generally on the right track,” Son Min-woo from Greenpeace told Korea Exposé. “But they need more concrete and verifiable plans that are based on a long-term view.”
Ahn raised some eyebrows with his pledge to build a Smog Free Tower, a seven-meter-tall air purifier that that purports to filter the air and turn particulate matter into jewelry. “We should give it a try to see if it really works,” Ahn said. But before the tower was installed in Beijing last year for a design festival, its designer explained that the tower’s purpose is more about raising awareness than actually cleaning the air.
Moon and Ahn both say they would reduce reliance on coal plants, which Greenpeace sees as a critical step. “South Korea is not short of energy nor power plants. But because of economic policy, coal plants run all year round, while more than half of natural gas plants, which emit less pollution, are idle,” Son said. According to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, coal-burning power plants accounted for the largest portion of South Korea’s electricity generation in 2014.
A subtle difference between the two candidates is that Moon suggested closing down old coal plants while Ahn proposed reducing coal plant operation to 70 percent of standard levels from November to April, when fine particle dust levels are high. But neither of the candidates have credible plans to switch to renewable energy over the long term.
“Whoever becomes president will have a very difficult time finding the perfect solution. We need to see how truthful someone is, and the extent to which they’d keep their promises…. Don’t forget that Park Geun-hye also had great pledges,” said a Facebook user Soomin Hahn, who identifies himself as a Moon-supporter.
Cover Image: (Source: JTBC)
Read more on air pollution in South Korea:
- Seoul Had the Second-Worst Air Quality in the World This Morning
- WHO vs. South Korea Guidelines for Air Quality
- Coal, Dust and Hot Air: South Korea’s Dirty Energy Habit
- Is Greenwashing South Korea’s New Black?