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There’s a new entrant on the blacklist of cities with unbreathable air

Building with smog in the city of Seoul at evening, South Korea. Photo/Getty Images

Beijing, New Delhi, Dhaka, Jakarta – and now Seoul.

The South Korean capital finds itself among the ranks of the most-polluted cities of not just Asia but the world.

A slew of recent international reports on air quality have put Seoul among the worst. South Korea loves to score at the top of international rankings, but this is one list it should not be proud of topping.

Compared with the first three months of 2016, the health authorities have this year issued twice as many ultra-fine-dust warnings. This is an advisory for sensitive groups – children, older people, those with respiratory issues – to avoid going outside so they don’t breathe in microscopic PM2.5 particles, which the World Health Organisation classifies as carcinogenic.

A report from the OECD last year predicted that air pollution would cost South Korea US$20 billion in economic damage by 2060 and give it the highest premature death rate from air pollution among advanced countries. A Korean study has found that exposure to air pollution can increase the risk of Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases.

As I sit here in Seoul, buildings only a few hundred metres away look fuzzy, and the mountain I climbed at the weekend, which usually looms over the city, is invisible. Seoul’s air pollution is on a par with Beijing’s and last week even outdid the Chinese capital on a few days.

It’s only going to get crueller this month, as April is when yellow dust descends from Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, picking up pollutants as it crosses China, then blanketing the Korean peninsula with a thick film that sticks in the back of the throat.

South Korean authorities have long blamed their air-pollution problems on China. And China, with its huge coal-fired power plants, belching factories and congested roads is certainly a big part of the problem.

The dirty skies over China are only getting worse, not better. Premier Li Keqiang promised at the annual meeting of the Congress last month to “make our skies blue again”, saying the authorities would make new efforts to cut coal usage.

But blaming everything on China overlooks the fact that South Korea, a signatory to the Paris Agreement on climate change, is also producing more than its fair share of industrial pollution.

From 50-70% of the ultra-fine dust that plagues the country is produced from domestic coal-fired power plants, construction sites, illegal waste burning and vehicle exhausts. The rest comes from China, according to Government estimates.

Many experts think this still puts too much of the blame on China. Greenpeace is calling for the South Korean Government to close coal-fired power plants. Some analysts want the Government to encourage electric cars and for Seoul and Beijing to work together to combat the problem.

The Government’s domestic efforts have so far amounted to little. One initiative, the ordering of cars off the roads on odd or even dates depending on licence-plate numbers, applies only to Government vehicles.

The Government will ask everyone else to voluntarily limit their driving when the air pollution is bad. But this has been done only once this year because of the complicated requirements for making such a request.

Activists are calling on the authorities to take bolder action, such as making the restrictions mandatory. In the meantime, I’ll be joining the legions of people walking around Seoul wearing a PM2.5-resistant face mask. Cough, cough.

New Zealander Anna Fifield is Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post.

This article was first published in the April 15, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.