Can Transparency Clean Up China’s Hazy Environment?

In response to public criticism, Beijing recently began releasing PM 2.5 readings of atmospheric particulates, while previously only PM 10 data was publicly available. The number in a particulate matter reading refers to the diameter of the particle in micrometers. While PM 10 is deemed unsafe by the World Health Organization and can settle in the lungs, the smaller PM 2.5 is even more menacing, as it can penetrate the lungs and impact other organs. According to The Economist, Chinese residents who do not live in the capital are still only able to access PM 10 data, but developments in atmospheric research may soon change that:

Though pollution data are best collected near the ground, a plausible estimate may be made from the vantage-point of a satellite by measuring how much light is blocked by particles, and estimating from those particles’ chemical composition the likely distribution of their sizes. And a report prepared for The Economist by a team led by Angel Hsu of Yale University does just that, drawing on data from American satellites to map out PM2.5 pollution across the entire country.

[…]This approach is not perfect. Satellites are not great at taking readings over bright surfaces like snow and deserts, and cannot easily distinguish particles high up in the atmosphere from those closer to the ground. And the data also have to be adjusted to take account of the fact that pollution and people tend to coincide.

[…]Such caveats aside, however, this study shows how far China still needs to go in cleaning up its act. Pollution and development have always marched hand in hand, and may even be regarded as tolerable so long as they mark only a temporary blip on the road to prosperity. What is intolerable is that it takes outside intervention to lift the lid on what is happening.

An article in The Telegraph also speaks to the known affiliation between development and pollution, and explains why we may not see China clean up its act anytime soon:

The problem is that there is a huge disconnect between central and local governments. In China, local officials are judged first and foremost by their success at improving the GDP of their regions. And no official seeking promotion wants to shut down a factory that is making money, even if it is spewing out pollution.

Another article in The Telegraph describes how local negligence may be responsible for recent cadmium contamination in southern China’s Longjiang river:

Even considering China’s notoriously poor environmental record, the spill in Guangxi Province is huge with officials describing it as “unprecedented”.

[…]On Monday, cadmium levels in the Longjiang River were 80 times higher than the safe limit.

[…]”It is apparently a glaring failure by local authorities to let the massive spill happen in the first place, not to mention the embarrassing fact that they cannot even pin down the pollution sources after two weeks,” Professor Dai Tagen, a metal pollution expert at the Central South University in Changsha, Hunan Province, told a Hong Kong newspaper.

[…]Despite orders from Beijing to make environmental protection a high priority, local governments in China frequently turn a blind eye to polluting industries in an effort to boost economic output.

In a China Daily article, Greenpeace activist Ma Tianjie used the Longjiang incident to illustrate how more transparency can help to solve pollution in China:

Some officials may fear that making too much pollution information public could trigger panic among people. But results from a recent initiative by the Ministry of Environmental Protection should be able to dispel such concerns. In August 2011, the ministry made an unprecedented move by releasing detailed pollution information on more than 1,900 lead-acid battery facilities across the country. It was the first time that information on an entire industry’s environmental performance was made public.

Reactions to the initiative were overwhelmingly positive. A close scrutiny of the data by the media, environmental NGOs and the public resulted in corrections and a dataset of improved quality, which would only help the ministry to better supervise the listed facilities. Updated data were released again to the public in November. But no panic followed. Instead, what we got were improved data and an empowered public.

Environmental information disclosure is credited for having helped many industrialized countries achieve significant reduction in toxic releases. Systems such as the US Toxics Release Inventory incur only minimal administrative cost, but are highly effective. There is no reason why China, still exploring ways to rein in rampant pollution, should not make use of such readily available instruments.

Despite calls for transparency in the official media, The Guardian gives an example of continued opacity in China’s environmental policy:

It ought to have been a centrepiece of China‘s efforts to reduce smog, but the government has quietly postponed plans to clean the fumes from truck and bus exhaust pipes.

The 18-month delay of new diesel emission standards, which was announced this month, runs contrary to the authorities’ promises to tighten controls on air pollution.

Environmental scientists say the move shows public health concerns remain far less of a priority for China’s leaders than the economic interests of state-owned petrol companies, PetroChina and Sinopec.


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