The critical environmental and sustainability issues of South Korea:
- Air Pollution
South Korea’s air quality was the worst among its peers in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as of 2017, according to data from the group. Its average annual exposure to fine particulate matter (PM) of less than 2.5 micrometers was 25.1 micrograms per cubic meter, slightly more than double the OECD average of 12.5. The World Health Organization recommends that air quality standards should be no more than 10 micrograms in terms of PM 2.5 levels.
The problem is apparent; according to the 2016 Environmental Performance Index (EPI), compiled by Yale and Columbia universities in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, South Korea ranks a lowly 173rd out of 180 countries in terms of air quality. Designated as a group 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization causing respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimated that outdoor air pollution was responsible for 359 premature deaths per million people in 2010 in South Korea. This number is expected to triple to more than 1,100 per million people by 2060 – one of the highest levels among OECD countries – unless mitigation efforts are successful. Notwithstanding, curbing domestic emissions, and further complicating the issue, is that a considerable amount of fine dust originates from neighboring states, in particular China. According to an estimate announced by South Korea’s environment ministry, China’s contribution in PM10, particulate matters with ten micrometers or less in size, ranges from 30 to 50 percent on average, but can reach up to 80 percent on the haziest days.
While in many poor countries poverty disproportionately affects the young, the opposite is true for South Korea. These numbers directly contrast the overall movement of the poverty rate in South Korea. Among people aged from 35 to 50 years old, the poverty rate hovers around six percent and the rate among 50 to 65 years old stays at approximately 12 percent. Seeing as the poverty rate in South Korea tends to dramatically vary based on age range, it begs the question as to what is causing such wealth disparity between the different age groups in South Korea. In order to lower the poverty rate, it may become essential that South Korea prioritizes making its public pension system more efficient so as to provide more people with funds after retirement. Without such correction, it may become impossible for elderly people in South Korea to sustain a healthy lifestyle once consistent sources of income cease.
- Water Quality
Over the past several decades, water quality in South Korea has remained poor due to poorly-operated water management services and sewage systems. According to The Korea Herald, in 2013, the Environmental Ministry conducted a survey of 12,000 South Koreans, and only 10 percent responded that they drank tap water, whether boiled or not. Meanwhile, 55 percent said they only drank tap water after boiling it. 30 percent of those surveyed cited concerns about old water tanks and pipes for their wariness toward tap water, and 28 percent were worried about reservoir sanitation.