Seoul city, South Korea. Photo: Patrick Foto / Getty Images.

Air pollution is a transboundary issue that requires cooperation at national, regional and global levels. Important examples of implementing solutions to reduce air pollution can be found around the world, and a number of these have achieved significant progress through regional cooperation. In Europe and North America, the consensus and willingness to cooperate on air pollution has been strong. National and regional cooperation has significantly contributed to achieving a remarkable reduction in pollutant emissions and concentrations, although problems still remain.

The situation in Northeast Asia is significantly different from that of Europe and North America. Air pollution is now much higher in Northeast Asia, reminiscent of the highest levels that were seen in Europe and North America in the mid-20th century. While Northeast Asian countries are taking strong action at national scales, there is limited regional cooperation. To solve the severe regional pollution issues, especially related to impacts on human health, it is necessary to use holistic approaches, combining technology, financial and administrative solutions. These can encourage increased national action and promote the regional cooperation that would speed up progress.

This report reviews the cooperation between three Northeast Asian countries: China, Japan and the Republic of Korea (hereafter Korea), and assesses which aspects of the regional collaboration from Europe and North America can be transferred to this part of Asia. The report will serve to advise governments, intergovernmental agencies and others on some key options that can be used to take further action at either national or regional scales. The report also assesses national activities in China, Japan and Korea.

Lessons learnt from Europe and North America

The review of the European and North American pollution policy and regional cooperation focusses mainly on the development of intergovernmental agreements under the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on Long-Range Transport of Air Pollution (LRTAP), but also on the development of EU legislation and agreements between the USA and Canada. There has been a large degree of political will to collaborate, share data and be transparent in Europe, which has allowed negotiations on emission reductions over the last forty years, and the EU has been able to harmonize legislation across Europe.

Intergovernmental agreements such as the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on Long-Range Transport of Air Pollution (LRTAP) sought to reduce impacts of “acid rain” on European forests and lakes. Photo: pixabay / pexels .

State of cooperation in Northeast Asia

The review of regional cooperation in Northeast Asia covers the activities of EANET (Acid Deposition Monitoring Network in East Asia), NEASPEC (Northeast Asian Sub-regional Programme for Environmental Cooperation), APCAP (Asia Pacific Clean Air Partnership) and the CCAC (Climate and Clean Air Coalition). Under these cooperation programmes, the focus has been on sharing information and data between countries. This has been on-going, but has not resulted in significant outcomes in terms of emission reductions. Therefore, the potential impact of enhanced regional cooperation in Northeast Asia remains unanswered.

This report compares these cooperative programmes based on the willingness to communicate information; institutional development; amount of funding; and allocation of human resources to support the process. Overall, most cooperative efforts in Northeast Asia do demonstrate the willingness of governments and related organizations to communicate with each other, but they still lack participation by the public. This is a major obstacle, as pressure from the public is a pre-requisite for action by governments.

A comparison of environmental cooperation between China, Japan and Korea shows that each country faces different issues and obstacles. Countries have concentrated on national action and therefore any collaboration between countries has been minimal. However, Northeast Asia is a very dynamic region and opportunities are arising all the time. Recent changes, such as China setting a date of decarbonization by 2060, can improve the likelihood of successful, increased cooperation.

Way forward

Key strategies for regional cooperation among the three countries are considered in the report. One key aspect is developing a strong consensus among the scientific community and the public about the air pollution issues and the potential to solve it. Identifying best practices by jointly assessing and reviewing activities undertaken in China, Japan and Korea, is a crucial component that can lead to progress. A proposal for technology cooperation among the three countries could provide a promising strategy, if each country were willing to share their experience of using the best available technology. This can enhance connections across the private sector in the different countries and boost business opportunities and the output of industrial goods.

In order to solve transboundary air pollution in Northeast Asia, holistic approaches are important so that technical expertise, economic resources and administrative support work in parallel to solve problems. Sharing data and information is a good start, but it is not enough. Developing appropriate strategies, policies and measures are crucial, if emissions are to be reduced.

Strengthening cooperation

This report considers cooperation on key technologies for monitoring, raising awareness and supporting solutions to air pollution, through active participation of the private sector, in collaboration with academic institutions. Cooperation can be strengthened by the formation of networks of scientists, engineers and others, to help governments lay out action plans to achieve the common goal of reducing air pollution. The formation of these networks can help increase the participation of the public and private sectors, which in turn can increase the interest of policymakers. Policymaker engagement can also be enhanced when the public become increasingly aware of the air pollution issues.

All of these aspects have been ingredients in the journey that has achieved reduced air pollution in Europe and North America. It is mainly a question of learning from this journey and finding aspects that could be relevant to processes in Northeast Asia, and highlighting those. This report tries to investigate this, whilst understanding that these regions have very different geopolitical contexts and not all elements are applicable.