South Korea suffers high levels of air pollution, both produced domestically and acquired via wind dispersal from neighbouring countries. A 2016 Yale air quality study ranked South Korea 173rd out of 180 countries in terms of air pollution; whilst it scored highly for indoor air quality, outdoor levels of PM2.5 and nitrogen dioxide brought the country’s score far down the list. Seoul and its neighbouring areas experience particularly high pollution levels.
The pollutants in South Korea’s air are a combination of local and neighbour’s emissions; up to 70% of domestic air pollution is estimated to be emitted locally. A large contributor to domestic pollution is power plants, particularly coal plants. South Korea currently has around 50 coal plants helping power the country, and currently plans to create 12 more by 2021. However, given pollution levels, some politicians are contemplating the possibility of shutting down some of the oldest plants to clean up the air.
South Korea also receives considerable amounts of air pollution from nearby Asian countries, notably China. It typically acquires yellow dust particles blown down from the deserts in Northern China and Mongolia, which collect harmful pollutants en route, such as lead, arsenic, and cadmium. Windbourne pollution also rises during the cold months in China when increased fossil fuels are burned to warm homes.
The country is making efforts to tackle the air pollution problem. South Korea has become the world’s 5th largest user of nuclear energy, as a greener alternative to coal power. Additionally, the country has issued two consecutive Seoul Metropolitan Air Quality Control Master Plans (2005-14; 2015-24) to reduce air pollution, by limiting emissions from vehicles and energy utilities.