China Says Foreign Embassy’s Air Data Illegal

As Beijing is putting new regulations on the monitoring of air pollutants, China is telling foreign embassies to stop reporting on air quality. According to Xinhua, the air data from these embassies are ‘inaccurate’ and ‘unlawful’:

A foreign embassy’s monitoring and issuing of air quality data in China is technically inaccurate and goes against international conventions and Chinese laws, an environment official said Tuesday in Beijing.

Vice Minister of Environmental Protection Wu Xiaoqing said to monitor air quality and release results, which involves the public interest, is the duty of the Chinese government.

“Some foreign embassies and consulates in China are monitoring air quality and publishing the results themselves. It is not in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, as well as environmental protection regulations of China,” Wu told a press conference.

Wu said China’s new standards for air quality, introduced at the beginning of this year, can meet China’s current situation as it took into consideration the current development level of China, and also conforms to international standards.

According to the Voice of America, the US embassy and consulate release on-the-hour reports on air quality through Twitter:

The U.S. embassy posts hourly air-quality data on its popular Twitter feed, which boasts over 19,000 followers. The U.S. consulate in Shanghai has a similar service.

The embassy feed was set up in 2009 following widespread complaints that official government readings were understating pollution levels in the smog-filled capital city.

In January, Beijing authorities promised to start publicizing more precise data on the city’s air quality. But there are often large differences between the official and U.S. readings, which Chinese government officials have criticized as being “unscientific.”

Wu said Tuesday that air quality figures should only be released by “competent” authorities, and that the readings should be based on a large area and not single monitoring stations such as the embassy grounds. The embassy acknowledges on its website that its readings should not be used to provide city-wide pollution readings.

Although Wu did not mention the United States specifically, the US has responded to this announcement. From the BBC:

The US says its own equipment should not be wholly relied on, as its data is compiled from only a single monitor. Its website makes clear that the measurements are for the benefit of embassy personnel and do not give citywide data.

The US monitoring helped spur a public outcry earlier this year that forced China to update its own standards, according to the BBC’s Damian Grammaticas.

China has privately demanded that the US halt its readings in the past, but this is believed to be the first time it has delivered a public warning over the issue, he adds.

US Embassy Spokesman, Richard Buangan, has also released a statement regarding air data quality. Bloomberg adds:

In a statement issued today, U.S. Embassy spokesman Richard Buangan said the readings are “an unofficial resource for the health of the consulate community.”

Asked about Wu’s remarks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told a briefing in Beijing that embassies can measure air pollution and give the information to their own staff; not broadcast it on the Internet.

China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and second-biggest economy.

Although Beijing has claimed to offer more accurate readings in response to public criticism, residents have dismissed these readings because they are ‘grossly understated,’ from Reuters:

The level of air pollution in China’s heaving capital varies, depending on the wind, but a cocktail of smokestack emissions, vehicle exhaust, dust and aerosols often blankets the city in a pungent, beige shroud for days on end.

“What needs saving is the country’s air quality, not the government’s face,” Zhou Rong, an energy campaigner for Greenpeace, said in emailed comments. “The environmental authorities must stop finger pointing and start taking actions that really address the issue.”

Despite his criticism, Wu acknowledged that China’s air quality and overall environmental situation remained precarious, with more than one tenth of monitored rivers rated severely polluted, for example.

International organizations have also published data on China’s air pollution. According to AFP, China ranks among the worst in the world:

Wu did not name the US, but called on embassies to abide by China’s laws, saying that publishing their own air quality data was “not in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations”.

China’s air quality is among the worst in the world, international organisations say, citing massive coal consumption and car-choked city streets in the world’s biggest auto market.

According to the latest Environmental Performance Index compiled by Yale University, China ranked 128th out of 132 countries for air quality.

Most Chinese cities base their air-quality information on particles of 10 micrometres or larger, known as PM10, and do not take into account the smaller particulates that experts say are most harmful to human health.

Read more about the environment and transparency, via CDT.