Seoul Turns to Technology to Battle Air Pollution

SEOUL, South Korea -- A camera-equipped drone flies around the outskirts of Seoul, hovering near an industrial plant and capturing video of pollutants. Below, on the crowded, litter-strewn streets, residents wear white and black masks that loop around their ears and cover their noses and mouths. A gray haze hangs in the sky, pierced by column after cookie-cutter column of high-rise apartments.

The unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, is part of a pilot program unveiled earlier this year by South Korea's Ministry of Environment. Tasked with inspecting factory emissions in the capital's greater metropolitan area, it's the latest in a series of tech solutions aimed at solving Seoul's dust dilemma -- which has become so serious that earlier this year the city government declared it an emergency.

Ministry officials are counting on the drones to help them crack down on illegal incineration, which produces pollutants including fine dust and carbon dioxide, by catching violators more quickly and effectively than employees on the ground ever could, says the agency's air quality management division head Shin Geon-il. Experts and residents hope the initiative will mark a turning point for Seoul, and -- because high-income urban areas are major drivers of nations' overall emissions -- South Korea at large.

"Compared to other developed countries, our air quality is bad," says Park Rok-jin, a professor at Seoul National University's School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. Among member countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, it's in fact the worst.

Citizens' No. 1 Concern

Jeon So-yun is a 36-year-old teacher who was born and raised in Seoul. She's lived in Beijing, Vancouver and Calgary, Canada, but has called South Korea's capital home for the last 11 years. Now, facing pollution she believes is worse than ever, she's seeking clearer skies.

"I feel very concerned that the microdust is harming my health. I can feel something is different with my body on the days with bad air, like coughing, phlegm,or skin trouble," she says. "One of the big reasons I've been trying to move to the U.S. is because of this bad air."

Jeon is not alone in her thinking. Many residents worry, in particular, about the dangers posed to vulnerable populations, including kids and the elderly. "When it comes to my future children, I think about moving out of Korea," says 28-year-old Lee Eun-ji, a research assistant living in Seoul. "And some of the mommies around me are considering this as well."

The fine dust has South Koreans so concerned, they've cited it as their No. 1 stressor in life -- more distressing than the country's economic stagnation, its rapidly aging population and even North Korea's erratic dictator and nuclear weapons program -- according to a 2017 national survey.

Their worries are well-founded. Around the world, outdoor air pollution is connected to 4.2 million deaths every year, with 91 percent of the global population living in areas with dust in excess of the World Health Organization's guidelines. The WHO advises exposure to fine dust, or PM10, of no more than a daily average of 50 micrograms per cubic meter, and to ultra-fine dust, or PM2.5, of no more than 25. At one point in 2017, Seoul's PM10 hit 179. In late March 2018, following a five-year low of 25.6 over a 20-day span, Seoul's PM2.5 soared to over 100.

PM2.5, or the particulate matter that measures less than 2.5 microns in width, is of greatest concern. So small it can get lodged into the lungs and penetrate the lining to enter the bloodstream, PM2.5 is comprised of black carbon, nitrates, ammonia and other harmful compounds linked to respiratory diseases and cancer. The WHO has classified fine and ultra-fine dust as carcinogenic since 2013.

Can Tech Save the Day?

Proponents hope the new drone program will make a dent in emissions by ensuring the country's worst industrial offenders follow regulations. And Shin, at the environment ministry, thinks there are plenty. In trying to benchmark well-performing countries, he says, he's found South Korea's business players are worse at adhering to guidelines than others. "It's quite a shameful story for us," he says.

Developed by the government-run National Institute of Environmental Research, the drone is the first of what the environment ministry intends to be a fleet deployed nationwide, perhaps as early as next year, if the necessary budget can be secured. Equipped with video cameras and pollution sensors, the drones will measure the particulate and gaseous outputs of manufacturing plants suspected of skirting filtration standards.

Other cities that have been experimenting with drones to detect fine dust include Dongguan in China, which uses technology similar to South Korea's, as well as Fairbanks, Alaska and Memphis, Tennessee in the U.S.

Park, the professor, says that "the idea of using drones to monitor factory emissions is fascinating," but its actual effectiveness will depend on the vehicles' flight times and sensor capabilities.

In addition, the Seoul city government is using air pollution maps, smartphone apps and text message alerts to communicate real-time data to the public. On days when PM2.5 and PM10 densities reach dangerous levels, it notifies citizens and bans schools from engaging in outdoor activities.

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Some South Korean tech companies, too, are stepping in with their own innovations -- like KT, the country's largest telecom provider, and its Air Map Korea Project. A nationwide network of 1,500 data-collection platforms, completed in 2018, the project leverages KT's vast information and communications technology infrastructure of telephone poles, mobile bases and public phone booths to monitor pollution trends and "accumulate know-how," as spokesperson Sim Sung-tae puts it.

These fixes may do a good job of measuring dust, but what about actually busting it? That's where the technology hasn't quite caught up yet.

Sim says KT's ultimate goal is to use artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things to pair the Air Map Korea Project with other systems like air purifiers and air purifying plants. These could adjust automatically as pollution levels rise or fall. "We are currently discussing network construction with various companies, including home appliance manufacturers and start-up companies, which have solutions for fine dust reduction and air quality improvement targeting different environments," he writes in an email.

Other private-sector solutions might include unmanned aerial vehicles that produce artificial rain with water or chemicals to wash away harmful PM2.5 and PM10 -- which China is currently developing -- and those outfitted with air filters to inhale the pollution.

Although much of this tech appears promising, Greenpeace's Seoul office stresses the importance of addressing the root of the problem. "Especially for OECD countries, phasing out coal by 2030 is crucial for not only air pollution reduction, but also for achieving the Paris Agreement goal," of which South Korea is a signatory, says Son Min-woo, of Greenpeace's Global Air Pollution Unit. "In spite of this, seven new coal-fired power plants are being built now in South Korea."

Indeed, the Moon Jae-in administration pledged last year to slash particulate emissions by 30 percent before 2022 and shutter 10 older coal plants by 2025, but also unveiled plans for 20 new ones by 2021.

Facing Up to Facts

It's a common complaint in South Korea that its poor air quality is the fault of nearby China. Meteorological conditions like stagnant weather, high humidity and calm winds combine with deforestation to sweep China's smog southward.

While this is true, much of the blame lies with South Korea itself, with more than half of its fine dust originating domestically, according to a 2016 joint study by NASA and the Korean government.

Besides industrial plants, the other main source of domestic PM, says Park, the professor, is engine exhaust. In Seoul, especially, which mayor Park Won-soon calls " addicted to cars," this has proven a huge challenge.

Earlier this year, Norwegian researchers analyzed data from 13,000 cities around the world and found Seoul to have the worst carbon footprint of them all, with city dwellers producing 276.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year through transportation and household consumption. That's about 45 percent of the country's overall carbon footprint.

Part of the solution is getting residents to recognize their own role in curbing carbon output. The city government has taken steps to help them, at one time waiving public transit fees during commuting hours on extremely high-pollution days, as part of a now-disbanded policy that yielded a mere 1.8 percent decrease in traffic. It's also closed government parking lots, enacted alternate-day driving for public employees, introduced fines and bans on certain diesel-fueled vehicles, installed more bike-sharing stations, and built green spaces that replace roadways with pedestrian pathways.

"Compared to the early 2000s, the pollution level has improved by 30 to 40 percent, but ... for the last five years the level is stagnant," says Choi Ho-jin, a Seoul Metropolitan Government spokesperson. "As a public service, we should improve the air quality."