Beijing's Air Quality: Crazy Bad vs. Slightly Polluted

The Los Angeles Times’ Barbara Demick explains how the air in Beijing can be “slightly polluted” according to Chinese measurements, but “beyond index” (formerly “crazy bad“) according to the US Embassy’s @BeijingAir tweets — a state not found in America “unless you were downwind from a forest fire”.

Chinese monitoring stations around the capital track large particulates of up to 10 micrometers. The number of those particles has dropped as a result of reforestation programs that lessen the dust storms that blew in from deserts. The Chinese have also been successful in reducing sulfur dioxide emissions by limiting coal heating and imposing stricter emissions standards.

The U.S. monitor tracks tinier particles — less than 2.5 micrometers — that physicians say are capable of penetrating human lungs and other organs. Car and truck exhaust is a major source of fine particulate pollution, a particular problem in Beijing, where the number of registered cars has skyrocketed from to 5 million from 3.5 million in 2008 ….

In July 2009, a Foreign Ministry official complained that because the U.S. data conflicted with China’s, they were causing “confusion” and undesirable “social consequences ….”

Although it is government data that are published in newspapers and broadcast on television, other Chinese media are increasingly citing the U.S. figures.

Global Times, while reporting that visibility in parts of northeastern China had dropped to 200 metres on Sunday due to “fog”, argued that “consensus” was needed on air pollution. Lack of trust in information provided by local governments, it said, had boosted the prominence of the @BeijingAir data.

… Local governments usually leave the impression of “playing down bad news” among the public, which makes many people exaggerate the gap between their feelings with the government’s figures.

It is probably the same reason why the monitoring standard of the US Embassy is emphasized by netizens. That means local governments need to establish absolute authority over monitoring pollution without concealing information. If they are defeated by foreign embassies in this regard, they will lose more than just authority in monitoring air quality ….

No one can neglect air pollution, but the condition in China is not mature enough to make eliminating air pollution its top goal in social development. However, it is not its last goal either. The goal will get increasingly closer to the core of China’s social development as it moves forward. It will probably be a main theme of China’s modernization at a higher level.

Melissa Chan of Al Jazeera illustrated the current air quality in Beijing with a photographic comparison on Twitter. See also Greenpeace’s collection of tools for tracking air quality around China, via CDT.

October 31, 2011 1:43 AM
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Categories: Environment, Sci-Tech