Who Is to Blame for Northeast Asia’s Transboundary Air Pollution Problem?


South Korea is faced with periodic environmental disasters in the form of pollution blowing from China. In the winter, the source is typically excessive burning of coal used in China for heating. In the spring, yellow dust from the deserts of northern China and Mongolia are blown across Northeast Asia, picking up soot and carcinogens from China-based industrial processes along the way. The movement of pollution like this beyond China’s borders is technically in violation of the United Nations Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, but the fact that both natural and anthropogenic processes are at work makes it difficult to establish practical policy prescriptions. Yet, the longer the issue goes unaddressed, the greater the public health costs become.

Outside of China, the health consequences are most severely felt in Korea. Short-term effects of particulate matter, yellow dust, and their combined effects with pollutants such as nitrous oxide include increases in mortality, hospital admissions, asthma symptoms, cardiovascular effects, lung inflammation, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, diabetes-related effects, and risks of myocardial infarction. Data drawn from the Asian Regional Emission Inventory indicate that premature mortality from related air pollution problems for all of East Asia will range from 450,000 to over 1 million cases in 2020 depending on policy scenarios. There are no current estimates of precisely how much these health-related issues could cost Korea economically, but it is assuredly significant. In China, the costs amount to close to 4 percent of GDP.

Meanwhile, the Korean media cover the problem inconsistently. Winter-based coverage highlights the Chinese influence; spring-based coverage (yellow dust) typically focuses on health-related impacts and preventative measures (e.g., using dust masks, air purifiers, and humidifiers). Both of these approaches fall short: the first merely attributes the problem to China, while the second treats the problem as though it were strictly epidemiological.

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The true nature of the problem is tied to the international economy. Like much of the world, Korea imports heavily from China. At the same time, outflows of foreign direct investment (FDI) from Korea to China are massive, representing an average of 6-10 percent of FDI in China. In short, Korean investors are quite possibly exporting a portion of their pollution-producing entities to mainland China, where weaker environmental standards and lax enforcement (not to mention lower labor costs) provide a more advantageous profit margin.

We know that there is a connection between FDI inflows and the rise of pollution. In addition, approximately one-third of sulfur dioxide, one-quarter of nitrogen oxides, one-quarter of carbon monoxide, and exactly 17 percent of black carbon emissions in China come from export-related manufacturing. This is a story that has slowly played out in China since the 1997 economic stimulus plan boosted widespread use of fossil fuels.

Correlation analysis indicates that FDI flows from Korea to China are positively associated with China’s fossil fuel energy consumption, as are respiratory-related deaths in Korea. On the basis of just these associations, the beginnings of a theoretical model begin to emerge – one where Korean-based investments in China ultimately contribute to negative health outcomes and increasing health costs for Koreans at home.

Though the Korean media tend to lay the blame for the costs of transboundary air pollution on China, the urgency of this problem requires the cooperation of both countries to manage what is ultimately a regional pollution issue. There is, of course, a simple but untenable solution: Korea could decrease its FDI in China, eliminating a portion of the pollutants that enter the air. But a better, more practical solution is the further deepening of Korea-China cooperation.

To do this, Korea and China can take a few steps in the short term that will impact the long-term effects of the pollution problem. First, negotiation and problem-solving activities among a handful of invested and capable individuals must continue and eventually expand. In Northeast Asia, this has been occurring through formal negotiations and discussions, such as meetings of the annual Tripartite Environmental Ministers Meeting (TEMM) and the Acid Deposition Monitoring Network in East Asia (EANET), the latter of which is a regional initiative to install air pollution-related monitors to improve data quality and analysis.

Second, China must couple its indigenous green energy efforts with the pursuit of technological solutions abroad. Effective and sustained growth can only be achieved when continued manufacturing of export goods couples with a reduction in emissions. From the Korean perspective, sharing relevant technology can be incentivized for Korean investors in China-based enterprises, particularly those that are energy intensive in their production process. Such incentives may include subsidized intellectual property licensing payments or a health cost offset.

These technological solutions build on basic research efforts that will provide the bedrock for further innovation. On that front, scientists and researchers in Northeast Asia have already established a cohesive network within and extending beyond the region to address Asia’s pollution problem. When research is oriented around air pollution, as is the case in cross-national research collaborations in Northeast Asia, a foundation is laid for collaborative patenting efforts and the creation of a growth trajectory reliant upon green technologies. But, as stated above, such efforts must ultimately complement the transfer of emissions-reducing technologies and formal state-to-state discussions.

Assigning the blame for transboundary air pollution in Northeast Asia solely to China is counterproductive: it oversimplifies the problem and it is factually inconsistent. Accurately understanding the complexities of the problem and improving coordination between Seoul and Beijing will help to alleviate a burgeoning health crisis.

Matthew Shapiro is Associate Professor of Political Science at Illinois Institute of Technology.

This piece is adapted from a longer essay published in the Korea Economic Institute of America’s Academic Paper Series. The full-length essay can be viewed here.

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