Beijing Air Quality at ‘Crisis’ Level

As the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gasses, it is no secret that the air quality in urban China is far from perfect. The Wall Street Journal reports on a statement from Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau deputy head Du Shaozhong, declaring air quality to have reached “crisis level”:

Beijing’s air has improved significantly since 1998, but the city can still cut emissions from sources including automobiles, coal-burning, industry and dust, Mr. Du said at a forum about how Chinese government offices can make use of microblogging services.

The recognition of a need for improvement might hearten residents of a city that is sometimes beset by darkness at noon. Mr. Du’s comments follow years of Chinese officials playing down the soupiness of Beijing’s air. The inky dark clouds that loom over the city on too many days represent for many Beijingers the disconnect between official statements and the reality of life in China’s capital.

But Mr. Du didn’t elaborate on measures that Beijing may be planning, and he was dismissive of the idea that air-pollution readings released by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing could bring pressure on the government.

Mr. Du declined to say whether he thinks Beijing should monitor and release data for smaller particulate matter in the air, as the U.S. Embassy in Beijing does.

The most recent post on The Diplomat’s China Power blog describes the discrepancy in air-quality readings between Beijing’s Environmental Protection Bureau and data released by the US Embassy:

I checked the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau’s reading. Data from the bureau for between 8 pm on December 4 and 8 am the next morning showed the pollution reading was 150 to 170, which equates to Level 3 on the bureau’s rating system. Level 3 is designated as “slight pollution” that will cause “some irritation amongst healthy people.”

So I checked with other media sources, and found that most were instead using air monitoring data from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. The data was shocking.

The index used by the U.S. Embassy measures particles under 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) compared with the between 2.5 and 10 micrometers used in China’s official readings. According to the U.S. index, at 7 pm on December 4, the concentration of fine particles in Beijing was 552. The maximum value on their scale is 500, meaning Beijing’s air quality was so poor that it was described as “beyond index.”

The city’s deteriorating air quality (this was the second time in about a month that Beijing’s pollution levels had exceeded the U.S. index) has prompted considerable frustration among many Chinese, and pressure is growing to include the PM2.5 data as the U.S. Embassy does.

Beijing’s failure to include the PM2.5 readings in official data may have to do with central government responses to publication of those numbers elsewhere in China. Asia Times reports on this and on public pressure to publicize more accurate air quality readings:

[…]Beijing has 27 monitoring stations capable of measuring PM2.5 levels, but officials choose to keep their readings to themselves.

Perhaps they learned a lesson from the eastern city of Nanjing, which was quickly castigated last month by central authorities after publishing PM2.5 readings online.

[…]Last Thursday, China Daily ran a story in which a Beijing-based expert on the environment made an unambiguous call for a tougher air-quality regime.

“Including PM2.5 readings is essential in figuring out the country’s haze problems,” said Ma Jun, director of the Public and Environmental Affairs Institute, “and it reflects the growing influence of public opinion regarding air quality.”

The Asia Times article also points to an op-ed published last week in the state-owned Global Times urging the nation to seriously address the environmental crisis. From the Global Times editorial:

The Chinese have been pursing a quality of life that comes under a blue sky. But we have not been able to bring this blueprint into reality. Our society needs to face the reality at present. Our pollution has become severe. It is time for us to shift our focus from development to protection. China should also strive for the environmental protection result seen in developed countries.

[…]There is no more reason to delay an overall campaign against air pollution. It needs the participation of every individual. For the government, covering things up or one-off drives, like that seen ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, can no longer be seen as a quick fix. For citizens, we all have to make our due contribution to win this battle. Every one of us is behind the air pollution more or less.

[…]A public yearning for clean air will also be a process reshaping China in many ways. It may be a bit messy, but can stir new hope.

You can view up to date air quality readings via the @BeijingAir Twitter feed. For more information on China and the environment, be sure to stay tuned to CDT’s Environment category.


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