|▲ Europe's Energy Portal identifies Korea as the world’s 6th largest consumer of coal. Photo courtesy Pixabay
Where does air pollution come from?
For years, China has been blamed for much of Korea’s air pollution, and with good reason. China has epic air pollution problems.
The 2016 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science revealed that “two countries account for 55 percent of the deaths caused by air pollution worldwide. About 1.6 million people died of air pollution in China and 1.4 million died in India in 2013.”
This study went on to identify one of the most influential pieces of the global pollution puzzle: “In China, burning coal is the biggest contributor to poor air quality.”
Most people appear to have no idea just how dangerous coal is. Fewer still seem to recognize the broader implications that it has for modern economic models.
Have you ever heard of London’s infamous deadly fog? It was a toxic pea soup that, in 1952 alone, killed between 4,000 and 12,000 people and made more than 100,000 sick.
The 1952 event was a seminal crisis in our long struggle with air quality, largely as a result of our use of coal and oil. It’s also is a microcosm for the mistakes of industrialization that we seem intent on repeating.
Recent political narratives have tried to reframe coal as an important part of a “return to greatness”, but it’s arguably one of the single greatest threats to life on the planet as we know it.
A 2007 Scientific American article explained that “fly ash emitted by a power plant - a byproduct from burning coal for electricity - carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy."
In 2009, the Physicians for Social Responsibility detailed how coal emissions cause “asthma, strokes, reduced intelligence, artery blockages, heart attacks, congestive heart failure, cardiac arrhythmias, mercury poisoning, arterial occlusion, and lung cancer”.
And a 2010 a study by the Clean Air Task Force found that air pollution from coal resulted in “13,000 premature deaths, 20,000 heart attacks, and 1.6 million lost workdays” each year in the U.S. alone.
And yet despite this long list of lethal problems - and even though we now have cleaner and cheaper alternatives - according to the International Energy Agency, coal is still the most popular fuel for generating electricity and is second only to oil in the world’s total primary energy supply.
Our addiction to coal and its short-term economic benefits is in large part why vast clouds of toxic particulate matter ride weather patterns from the Chinese mainland to blanket Korea, Japan, and even North America.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), “China is the world's top coal producer, consumer, and importer and accounts for almost half of global coal consumption.”
But coal isn’t just a Chinese problem, and neither are plummeting air quality standards.
Europe's Energy Portal identifies Korea as the world’s 6th largest consumer of coal.
In 2015, the EIA ranked South Korea as the fourth-largest global coal importer, stating, “Coal consumption in South Korea increased by 56% between 2005 and 2015, driven primarily by growing demand from the electric power sector.”
Coal is Korea’s largest source of power. In 2014 it accounted for 39.1% of the country’s energy portfolio. Nuclear was the next largest at 30%.
According to a 2017 article in the Financial Times, Korea currently has 53 coal-powered plants, with plans to construct 20 more in the next five years.
While this seems paltry compared to China’s 210 new coal-fired power plants in 2015 alone (and the approximately 600 such plants in the United States) Korea’s dependence on coal is itself a profound source of pollution on the peninsula.
There is, however, a possibility that Korea is going to begin tackling this issue.
President Moon Jae-in plans to temporarily close 10 coal-powered plants for one month in June of 2017. It’s not much, but it may represent the beginning of a larger policy shift.
|▲ Photo courtesy Jeju Special Self-Governing Province
President Moon has said he wants to increase “the proportion of electricity generated from renewable energy from 1.1 percent to 20 percent by 2030.”
And according to a recent Reuter’s article, the Moon administration has pledged to review plans to build nine new coal plants and eight nuclear plants.
However, there’s a lot of resistance to President Moon’s ideas. Short term economic costs have almost always trumped long-term goals for healthier, more sustainable alternatives.
However, our lopsided struggle between the greater good and vested interests is growing even more conspicuous as traditional fossil fuels lose ground in the face of unprecedented progress in renewable energies.
According to a 2017 report from the United Nations and Bloomberg New Energy Finance, “after the dramatic cost reductions of the past few years, unsubsidised wind and solar can provide the lowest cost new electrical power in an increasing number of countries, even in the developing world – sometimes by a factor of two.”
India, for instance, announced a 40 percent reduction in the rupees per kilowatt-hour for solar energy. It’s an “historic drop” in the market price of solar tariffs, according to The Guardian, “well below the average charged by India’s largest thermal coal conglomerate, currently around 3.20 rupees per kilowatt-hour.”
And China is joining this shift.
In May, Bloomberg reported that “China electricity output from photovoltaic plants rose 80 percent in the first quarter after the world’s biggest solar power market increased installed capacity.”
It’s the beginning of a major shift in energy policies worldwide, however the costs of moving away from fossil fuels will be economically and socially demanding. It will require a generation of sacrifice, not to mention an evolution in currently acceptable business practices, and very possibly a complete overhaul of market economy theories.
Korea, however, has distinguished itself as an incredible machine for adaptation and growth. It is time for this country to turn its attention to the only real future we have.
We need countries with political willpower and moral foresight to take the lead in the next chapter of globalization. Korea is one of the few cultures that has the potential to do so quickly and intelligently, joining pioneers like Germany in establishing smart grids and other re-engineered technical infrastructures of the future.
The alternative is air that literally kills people and an environment no longer hospitable to human civilization.