In Beijing, Fog or Smog?

Heavy smog in Beijing forced the delay and cancellation of hundreds of flights yesterday, as U.S. embassy readings continue to report “hazardous” and “dangerous” pollution levels in the Chinese capital. From Reuters: 

As of 2 p.m. (0600 GMT), 126 flights had been delayed by an hour or longer and 207 were cancelled at Beijing, the world’s second-busiest airport, Xinhua news agency said.

The Beijing sky was so dark that many drivers kept their headlights on throughout the day, giving the city an eery, netherworld feeling.

“Such super foggy weather looks like the end of the world,” commented one microblogger using the name David Jiaoxiaomao.

The Financial Times’ beyondbrics blog posted a series of photos detailing yesterday’s conditions in Beijing, conditions which the China Daily attributed to a “heavy fog” that has lingered since the city’s first snow this weekend. The Global Times interviewed an engineer with the Beijing Meteorological Bureau who denied that the poor visibility was pollution-related:

Zhang Mingying, a meteorological engineer at the Beijing Meteorological Bureau, told the Global Times on Monday that the recent fog is normal in terms of frequency during this time of year according to their monitoring.

“Heavy fog has occurred 6 times a year on average over the past 30 years and December’s fog was the seventh occurrence this year. Therefore, it is a normal climate condition in Beijing,” said Zhang.

The Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau said on its official microblog on Sunday that the air quality pollution index would reach up to 280 by Monday, which is a “medium pollution degree” according to the official air quality pollution scale system.

Zhang refuted the idea that the fog is a result of air pollution saying, “It is the massive amount of water vapor near the ground and the drop in temperature which creates the fog.”

On the question of fog or smog, the sale of pollution masks have surged and The Wall Street Journal noted a fundamental shift in the willingness of Chinese people to believe the government’s official explanation:

While state media have described the cloud as a “heavy fog,” millions of posts on popular Chinese microblogging service Sina Weibo and other Internet sites are treating it as something else. “How many thousands died because of London’s fog back in the day?” Weibo user Zheng Wuxie wrote on Monday. “Beijing is dangerous.”

“Friends in Beijing, are you OK?” wrote another Weibo user, CAPF Green, attaching a screenshot of a mobile app powered by the U.S. Embassy’s @BeijingAir Twitter feed showing dangerous pollution levels.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which broadcasts readings from its own pollution monitoring equipment on an hourly basis through Twitter, has been instrumental in piercing the veil around air quality in China’s capital — particularly in the month or so since celebrity real estate mogul Pan Shiyi cited its readings in calling for tougher air monitoring standards.

Yesterday, China Dialogue’s Steven Q. Andrews published a comprehensive analysis of the U.S. embassy’s hourly Twitter data on Beijing’s air quality and called on the Chinese government to face the problem honestly and transparently:

According to Du Shaozhong, vice-president at the BJEPB, it is an “indisputable fact” that air pollution in Beijing has improved in recent years. In China, days that meet air quality standards are termed “blue sky days” and described as having “good” or “excellent” air quality. Officially, the number of blue sky days increased to 286 days (78%) in 2010, up from 100 days (27%) in 1998.

But, these so-called improvements are due to irregularities in the monitoring and reporting of air quality – and not to less polluted air. Most importantly, the government changed monitoring station locations twice. In 2006, it shut down the two most polluted stations and then, in 2008, began monitoring outside the city, beyond the sixth ring road, which is 15 to 20 kilometres from Beijing’s centre.

Most people don’t really care about governmental constructs like blue sky days and pollution indices. People worry about what really matters – the impacts of pollution on their health. As the China Daily recently wrote: “All of the residents in the city are aware of the poor air quality, so it does not make sense to conceal it for fear of criticism.” Even with the proposed revisions, the severity of air pollution in China will continue to be understated.

There is no reason for the Beijing government to continue to wait before publicly reporting and accurately describing the hazardous air. As a first step, the government should stop describing dangerous levels of air pollution as excellent air quality. Because fine particulate and ozone levels are already measured, they should be reported to the public. With every additional polluted blue sky day the government reports, it continues its misinformation campaign that has misled the public and helped prevent real improvements in the city’s air.

See also previous CDT coverage of air pollution in China.