After Elections, Seoul Braces for Environmental Inaction

An estimated 17,000 people die every year in South Korea from air-pollution-related illnesses. But this top-priority issue was conspicuously absent from the campaign manifesto of the newly elected mayor of Seoul.

The death of former mayor Park Won-soon in 2020 triggered the April 7 by-election to fill the remainder of his term. Park’s suicide and the related sexual harassment allegations against him sparked a national debate on his legacy. But on environmental issues Park bucked the trend of growth at any cost that obsessed his predecessors.

One such predecessor is the recently victorious conservative party candidate Oh Se-hoon, who served as Seoul’s mayor from 2006 to 2011. Oh ran on a platform devoid of environmental policies and in support of increased car usage. Vehicles remain the single largest source of particulate matter air pollution in the country’s capital.

Under Park Won-soon, Seoul controlled parking space as a tool to reduce car usage and tackle air pollution. By contrast, Oh plans to double parking space in the city, which will exacerbate air pollution and burden future administrations with unnecessary infrastructure financed by misspent public funds.

Similarly, a decade of conservative national government left the country choked by diesel vehicles and coal power plants, a problem that the ruling Democratic Party has haphazardly tried to undo. During his previous mayoralty, Oh initiated some of the city’s most derided vanity projects, including the $450 million Dongdaemun Design Plaza (a beautiful but empty Zaha Hadid landmark) and Gwanghwamun Plaza (basically the city’s largest traffic island).

Oh has talked about light rail. But public transport expansion, without car restrictions, will have few environmental benefits. According to the so-called fundamental law of highway congestion, drivers annoyed by traffic switch to light rail, which decreases congestion, so other people start driving.

In more recent election material, Oh had proposed a broad expansion of electric vehicle charging stations. But again, without restrictions on internal combustion vehicles, such as congestion charges, parking restrictions, or registration bans, the charging stations will just increase the total number of vehicles on the road. More fundamentally, electric vehicles still produce air pollution, as around 60 percent of vehicle fine dust emissions comes from non-tailpipe sources (brake, tire, and road wear). The only real solution is fewer cars.

The program of Democratic candidate Park Young-sun, while far from perfect, at least addressed the city’s environmental crises. Park suggested converting the city’s countless delivery motorbikes to electric by 2030 and expanding road surface fine dust removal. She also supported moving forward a ban on registering internal combustion vehicles to 2030, a policy Park Won-soon announced a day before his death.

At the core of Park Young-sun’s platform was the concept of a 21-minute city. While details were thin, the concept was a hat tip to a global movement in city governance, modelled by the 15 Minute City campaign of Parisian mayor Anne Hidalgo. The movement envisions decentralized cities where residents can easily reach anything they need by foot or bike, thus making cars—and car pollution–unnecessary.

Park Young-sun’s pledge to make Seoul a city “free from the worry of fine dust” by 2045, as with all recent Democratic Party environmental announcements, lacked specificity on details and implementation. But she at least addressed air pollution and environmentalism. Oh’s failure to address these issues was a rerun of last year’s national legislative elections, in which the conservative party similarly ignored these pressing concerns.

The COVID crisis has shown what governments can do when they choose to protect their citizens from illness and death. South Korea, too, has demonstrated great ingenuity and resolve in dealing with the pandemic. At both the national and municipal levels, South Korean politicians need to turn their attention and the resources of the state to air pollution, a threat that severely undermines the health and the very quality of life of citizens in Seoul and throughout the country.

This article first appeared on FPIF.

Sam Macdonald is the International Solidarity Coordinator for the Korean Federation for Environmental Movements, South Korea’s largest environmental NGO. The views expressed are those of the author alone.