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[Lee Jae-min] No plan in sight for fine dust

Here we go again. Public concerns escalate, agencies issue advisories, and ominous news reports flood media outlets. And then we get one final piece of advice: Wear masks. That is pretty much it -- nothing further happens. When the next fine-dust blanket hits the country a couple of weeks later, I can almost guarantee the cycle will repeat.

This is too lame for a country that inches closer to a fine-dust disaster with each passing year. When fine dust levels soared to new heights last week, clean air and comfortable breathing were the talk of the town. The topic has bitten into all corners of our society and daily activities.

It was 2007 when fine dust first appeared on the national agenda. The intervening 12 years have only seen the problem worsen dramatically. But in terms of national policy, we have not moved beyond the “worry-and-wear-masks” formula.

Remarkably, we have yet to see an official report or a national white paper on fine dust, detailing where its diverse sources originate and spelling out who is accountable and in what proportions. Think tanks have released sporadic, fragmented and piecemeal reports. Now is the time for something comprehensive and official.

What is known, at least for now, is limited. The current problem is the result of a combination of domestic and foreign sources. Among domestic sources, many culprits are mentioned, including old diesel-fueled cars, fossil-fuel heating, seasonal meteorological fluctuations and even household mackerel grilling. When it comes to foreign sources, China is listed as a major one. This is it, though: a tantalizing, rough description of possible sources but no further steps. There are broad conclusions, but no game plan.

To see how wide the variance is, just look at the China factor. Depending on institutions, research methodologies and seasonal fluctuations, the lowest level of “accountability” assigned to the China factor is 18 percent, while the highest stands at 80 percent. This variance is not just confined to the China discussion. Similar number gaps also appear in relation to domestic sources. Unless these numbers are sorted out and backed up with scientific estimates, it is challenging to formulate and prioritize national policies to cope with the fine-dust problem, much less negotiate plans with neighboring countries.

That is right, some will argue. It is extremely difficult to compile data on this issue. No question about it. Wind blows in all directions and knows no borders. A mix of causes, both human and natural, are evolving and changing every year.

A good excuse if the problem just occurred all of a sudden. But probably not when the problem is 12 years in the making. Citizens might want to see some reliable information and official statistics by now -- again, something beyond media reports and think tank briefs. This is the starting point to consider long-term measures and responses. Without data and evidence, no matter whether the fine dust is coming from abroad or from domestic sources, our chances of winning the game are slim to none.

While we wait for answers, the fine-dust problem has gotten worse and worse, and the alarm blared last week. It will shriek this time next year if we continue to stand on the sidelines.

As a matter of course, consultations and cooperation with China are critical. Any meaningful talk, however, can only start when hard numbers are put on the table. Self-evidently, effective measures to counter domestic emission sources are long overdue. Any consideration of domestic measures will also require official information showing exactly where we stand now. In the absence of a comprehensive national report, these discussions can hardly gain any traction.

After a decade of fine dust, if the best advice we can hope for from the agencies in charge is still “wear masks,” there is a serious problem.

Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at Seoul National University. He can be reached at -- Ed.