massive us embassy pm2.5 data dump

April 15th, 2014

Incredible! The State Department has released six years of hourly PM2.5 data from the US Embassy in Beijing. The data is actually wonderfully well-organized (kudos to whoever formatted it and prepared it for release!), and is just begging to be dug through. Here are some initial discoveries and thoughts based on a few hours of playing around with the data. (See also some good initial analysis from Wayne Ma/WSJ here and here.)

The Dataset
The dataset contains nearly 50,000 hourly readings from April 8, 2008, to March 31, 2014. There are some gaps in the coverage, but overall the data are fairly comprehensive. (It’s also clear that the reliability of the monitor – or maybe the reliability of maintenance – improved over time.) The data are exclusively hourly PM2.5 readings from the single monitor at the US Embassy. Because the data are in hourly concentrations of PM2.5, they must be processed into daily average concentrations and then converted to AQI. There are no ozone data, nor data from other monitors around the country or world. (Yet.)

The Best and the Worst
– Best hour: 9/28/2012 at 9am and 2pm: 0 ug/m3. Astonishing!
– Best day: 9/28/2012: 3 ug/m3
– Worst hour: 1/23/2012 at midnight: 994 ug/m3
– Worst day: 1/12/2013: 569 ug/m3
– Biggest single-hour change: 11pm to midnight, 1/22-23/2012: +769 ug/m3
– Longest streak of Unhealthy air (>150 ug/m3): 161 hours (2/19-26/2014)

Yearly Averages
The following figure shows Beijing’s yearly average PM2.5 levels according to the US Embassy monitor. Also shown on the figure are the US annual average PM2.5 standard (12 ug/m^3) and China’s (35 ug/m^3).

beijing yearly average pm25 2008-2014
The data, of course, show that Beijing’s air quality is atrocious, with annual average PM2.5 many times higher than recommended levels. But what about the trend? Well it’s actually not clear. Obviously the first quarter of 2014 has been terrible, but that could be just the season (see next graph). 2013 was slightly worse than 2012, but that’s not a trend; 2012 may have been abnormally clean. Overall, it looks like Beijing’s air has not gotten demonstrably worse or better over the past six years.

Monthly Averages
From these data we can take a first look at seasonal periodicity in PM2.5. This graph shows monthly average PM2.5 levels over the entire dataset (note: I should really show error bars in this, but don’t have the time to put that together right now and anyway this isn’t peer-reviewed, just a quick look):

beijing monthly average pm25 2008-2014
This is a strange pattern that I’m not sure how to interpret. It does seem to make intuitive sense that the winter months would be worse, but why also June and July? Perhaps the answer lies in the weather and wind patterns of the spring and fall that help disperse pollution, but that’s just a guess.

Let’s look at the entire time series (monthly averages):

beijing month average pm25 2008-2014
This is way less clean/clear. The extreme variability of the monthly air quality jumps out immediately, especially January 2013 and February 2014 (worst months), as well as January 2011 (best month).

Hourly Averages
Ever wonder how Beijing’s pollution changes over the course of the day? Well, take a look:

beijing hourly average pm25 2008-2014I’d say that looks like a pretty clear trend, with PM2.5 surging during evening rush hour and remaining high into the early hours of the morning. Is this linked to motor vehicle patterns (including trucks entering the city at night?) or related to diurnal weather patterns? I’m not sure yet, but certainly worth closer look and investigation.

Finally, at the risk of showing too much in one table, here’s the percentage binning of days by US AQI category in each of the years (further description of these bins is here).

2008-2014 beijing air quality by category
As also noted by Wayne Ma in WSJ, nearly half of the days are deemed “Unhealthy” by the US EPA. (I haven’t compared these yet against the Chinese scale, as Wayne did.) It’s clear that Beijing and the national government have a lot of work left to do. But really we knew that before we had 50,000 data points to prove it.

Next Steps
I get asked all the time by researchers if I have these data; I’m so glad that State has finally put them out there public. I’ve just scratched the surface here, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the further analysis people come up with. If I have time I’ll post some more analysis this week. Now if only the Chinese National Environmental  Monitoring Center would do a similar data dump…

2014: first tests of China’s major air quality improvement plans

January 3rd, 2014

Happy New Year!

I was asked to contribute a short essay to China Dialogue’s New Year’s “Predictions for China’s environment in 2014.”

They’ve given me permission to re-post here. Originally posted, in English and Chinese, at China Dialogue:

2013 will be remembered in China as the year of the “airpocalypses.” Smoggy skies throughout the year (e.g. Beijing in January, Harbin in October, Shanghai in December) drew unprecedented attention from the media, the general public, and China’s leaders. The Chinese government responded by issuing a surprisingly aggressive series of new plans and regulatory actions. The most important of these, September’s State Council Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan, establishes new binding air quality improvement targets for cities, mandates a host of specific pollution control actions such as fuel quality improvements and regional coal caps, requires cities to adopt emergency pollution response plans, and much more. Some provinces and cities also issued their own, detailed set of additional directives; Beijing famously “declared war” on PM2.5 before releasing its 84-point plan.

If 2013 was the year so many government air quality plans were forged, 2014 is the year they will begin to be wielded. A few examples from the transport sector specifically: starting January 1st, the nationwide implementation of a cleaner gasoline standard means that all cars will emit less pollution; a parallel cleaner diesel standard will follow by the end of the year. In Beijing, new limits on the population of vehicles will make winning the city’s notorious license plate lottery even more unlikely, while thousands of electric and gas-fuelled buses and municipal trucks will begin to hit the streets. 2015 and beyond will bring even more aggressive goals, especially sweeping new regulations and targets for the greater Beijing, Yangtze River Delta, and Pearl River Delta regions.

Of course, ultimate success will be evaluated not by how many directives the government issues – or even on how well they are implemented and enforced – but rather on actual, measured improvements in the air people are breathing. China’s recently completed, extensive air quality monitoring network publicly broadcasts hourly, real-time air quality data, data that will be watched closely by the media, public, and government alike. Unfortunately, even with China’s new, comprehensive air quality improvement plans, solving the air pollution crisis will likely take many years. Whether China’s public has the patience to endure a few more years of poor air quality (and inevitable, occasional airpocalypses) while the lengthy clean-up unfolds may be just as interesting to watch in 2014 as the plans and policies themselves.

the solution to beijing’s pollution is…controlling barbecues?

October 16th, 2013

Over the past few months, there have been a few suggestions from Chinese researchers and officials that Beijing’s government should go after cooking, especially outdoor barbecues, as a way of controlling air pollution. Back in May, I was quoted in the WSJ’s China Realtime Report questioning this strategy, noting my opinion that because barbecue emissions are very minor compared with emissions from motor vehicles, power plants, and industrial sources, I think it’s misguided and unfair to target the wonderful Beijing institution of outdoor chuanr. (At a deeper level, I am also concerned about the idea that average people (laobaixing) should be blamed for pollution or should have to “share the burden” to make the skies blue. The primary burden of action for the next decade falls primarily on government and industry.)

In any case, last week, cooking-as-a-pollution-source was back in the news, with another official highlighting the need for Beijingers to contribute to the air quality improvement efforts by, apparently, modifying their cooking practices. (There is even a debate going on about the differing PM2.5 impacts of different regional cuisines.) As noted in a nice summary in the SCMP, the official was widely ridiculed and refuted by both the Beijing EPB and academic researchers.

But before we dismiss this story as a case of a ridiculous official trying to do anything to blame Beijing’s pollution on something other than poor environmental regulation of obvious major sources, let’s take a closer look at whether there is any merit to the claim.

First of all, how much does cooking really matter? The closest I’ve seen to an “official” source apportionment for Beijing’s PM2.5 pollution are numbers cited by Vice Mayor Hong Feng in a January 2013 interview. Cooking isn’t even included, leading me to believe that the Beijing EPB doesn’t see it as a primary culprit:


Here are those data in a pie chart:

The above data, like most citywide inventories I’ve seen, don’t include cooking. But is cooking generally omitted because it truly is insignificant, or simply because most researchers – wrongly – don’t even think about it? At least one researcher would argue the latter. Wang Yuesi, an atmospheric physics researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has claimed that cooking is responsible for 13% of Beijing’s PM2.5. A detailed breakdown of his numbers were presented at a Clean Air Asia conference earlier this year. Cooking here is shown in red (other sources are in comparable color to the above chart):

Wang Yuesi data on Beijing PM2.5 sources (left: Beijing; right: greater Beijing region)

I don’t know how many other researchers out there would validate this 13% number. Still, this is at least one data point to suggest that cooking is not entirely insignificant and (perhaps) should not be laughed off as quickly and easily as I did earlier this year.

Regardless of the exact contribution of cooking to Beijing’s overall pollution problem, this debate raises an important point that is sometimes forgotten in air quality discussion. When it comes to quality of life and health impacts, what matters is not citywide averages but what people are actually exposed to on a day-to-day basis. (In my work, I often argue that the 22% number thrown around for fraction of PM2.5 from motor vehicles is far smaller than the reality of exposure, since 3/4ths of Beijing’s population lives near a roadway.) Along these lines, my friend Rob Earley took issue with my WSJ comments and e-mailed me the following perspective:

While probably not a big contributor to ambient air pollution across the entire Beijing “airshed”, open-air charcoal fired BBQ is certainly a contributor to local pollution that can directly affect hundreds to thousands of people in areas of high BBQ intensity and high population intensity. As you know, I live directly upstairs from Gui Jie where there is no shortage of BBQing going on at night, and when the wind blows in the right direction, my clothes hanging in the balcony to dry will most definitely take on a smoky, lamby odour. My air purifier agrees that there is something coming through the window to get excited about. While I don’t have the resources to confirm this scientifically, there are research papers that suggest that BBQ smoke does contain significant particulate matter, aromatic compounds and traces of heavy metals. In areas such as gui jie where there are apartment buildings surrounding the BBQ area, there is definitely potential for hundreds of families to be exposed on a daily basis to local high levels of smoke in addition to ambient pollution. I do believe that a major principle of health effects from PM exposure has to do with local conditions – as we’ve discussed before, concentrations of PM are highest within 50 m of major roadways. I expect that PM concentrations would also be very high in areas that supply open-air charcoal BBQ on a regular basis.

In a follow-up, Rob noted that because it’s actually quite challenging to accurately estimate the pollution contributions from different sources in Beijing, people take advantage of the uncertainty to push certain political goals (maybe you have other reasons for wanting to crack down on barbecues) or to dodge responsibility. In the end, the proper solution is probably to go after all the sources you can think of. Although I believe the short and medium-term solutions to improve Beijing’s air quality are to tackle motor vehicles and coal-burning power plants and industrial facilities, that doesn’t mean that effectively controlling these will be sufficient to improve Beijing’s long-term air quality to world-class standards. California, which has notoriously struggled to improve air quality despite stringent emission standards, has regulations affecting a number of unexpected sources like wood-burning, lawnmowers, and, yes, even barbecues.

contextualizing china’s fuel pricing announcement

September 28th, 2013

Cross-posted on the ICCT Staff blog.

A few days ago, China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) announced a new pricing policy for higher quality fuels. The policy calls for the prices of China IV gasoline and diesel (50ppm sulfur content) to be increased by 290 and 370 RMB/ton, respectively. The prices of China V gasoline and diesel (10ppm) are to be raised a further 170 and 160 RMB/ton, respectively. The new pricing changes are designed to encourage and assist China’s refineries to meet the fuel quality improvement timeline announced by the State Council earlier this year. That timeline calls for nationwide supply of China IV gasoline by the end of 2013, China IV diesel by the end of 2014, and China V gasoline and diesel by the end of 2017.

The pricing changes appear to be the first steps in implementing State Council calls in October 2011 and February 2013 to use progressive fiscal policy to encourage the supply of higher quality fuels. Additional fiscal policies, for example a fuel tax adjustment differentiated by fuel quality, will likely be announced separately by the Ministry of Finance (though the timing of any additional MOF policy announcement is uncertain).

To understand better and contextualize what the NDRC pricing numbers actually mean, let’s look at the answers to some relevant questions:

1) What does it mean for the NDRC to set the price of fuel per ton?
The price of fuel in China is controlled by the NDRC, rather than being market-driven (though China has been slowly revising its pricing policy to better reflect the international price of crude). The NDRC sets the prices, per ton, to be paid to refineries in China for a variety of different petroleum products including gasoline and diesel used in motor vehicles.

2) How is the per-ton price of fuel linked to the per-liter cost to consumers at the pump?
Changes in the per-ton prices set by the NDRC usually directly result in changes in per-liter prices at the pump. For example, in their 9/13 regular fuel price adjustment notice, the NDRC announced the per-ton price change while also directly estimating the impact on prices at the pump. But in that case, the price changes were due to recent changes in the international crude price, a slightly different case.

Regarding the upgrading to China IV and V fuels, the NDRC explicitly stated in a follow-up Q&A that refineries and consumers should both bear a portion of the cost of the higher quality fuel. Although the NDRC has not detailed what those portions should be, the recent announcement implies that the cost burden to be absorbed by the refineries is not included in the announced price changes. This would imply that the primary burden of the additional price will be passed on to consumers. Even so, in their original announcement, the NDRC noted that additional subsidies and fiscal incentives may still be used to ensure that the cost burden of the higher quality fuel is not too great, especially for poorer consumers. Therefore, it’s unclear now what the final per-liter pump price increases will be.

3) What is the current price of fuel in China?
The price of fuel varies by region in China. The current, per-ton prices for gasoline and diesel in China are around 9500-9700 and 8700-8900 RMB/ton, respectively. (Note: the prices are higher in cities like Beijing and Shanghai which have already upgraded their fuel quality.)

A ton of gasoline yields about 1379 liters. A ton of diesel, which is denser, yields about 1190 liters. Assuming average nationwide per-ton prices of 9600 RMB for gasoline and 8800 RMB for diesel, we can roughly estimate per-liter prices of about 6.96 RMB/liter for gasoline and 7.4 RMB/liter for diesel ($4.35/gallon for gasoline and $4.62/gallon for diesel). (Note: the the WSJ reported Tuesday slightly lower nationwide weighted average pump prices of $4.21/gallon (gasoline) and $4.36/gallon (diesel).)

4) If the increased price per ton is passed entirely to consumers, what will the impact be on prices at the pump?
The total NDRC price increases for upgrading from China III to V gasoline and diesel are 460 and 530 RMB/ton, respectively. This is equivalent to 0.33 RMB/liter (0.21 USD/gallon) for gasoline and 0.45 RMB/liter (0.28 USD/gallon) for diesel. If these price increases are entirely passed to consumers, they will result in cost increases of about 4.8% for gasoline and 6.0% for diesel.

5) How did the NDRC determine the price increases?
In the Q&A posted on their website, the NDRC explained that the price increases were based on comprehensive investigations and audits of Sinopec and PetroChina refineries which have already been upgraded to be able to produce China IV and V fuel, as well as experience from Beijing and Shanghai. (Beijing has already implemented China V fuel, while Shanghai is currently transitioning to China V.) The NDRC’s nationwide price adjustments for the China III->V transition are identical to the price adjustments used in Beijing and Shanghai for upgrading from China II to China V.

6) Are the price changes enough to cover the increased cost of refining higher quality fuel?
A 2012 ICCT study suggested that the additional cost to produce China V (10ppm) fuels in China would be just 0.04 and 0.11 RMB/liter for gasoline and diesel, significantly less than the NDRC’s announced price increases. This implies that the announced price adjustments should be way more than adequate to cover the required refinery upgrades and increased production costs for China V fuel. Even before additional fiscal policy measures from MOF are implemented, this pricing certainty will be instrumental in incentivizing China’s refineries to move ahead with the upgrades in order to meet the fuel quality timeline.

7) What about compliance and enforcement?
Finally, it’s important to note that the NDRC announcement included an entire paragraph on the importance of and mechanisms for ensuring compliance and enforcement of the fuel quality. In addition to asking multiple ministries (MEP, MOFCOM, SAIC, AQSIQ, NEA, and others) to work closely together, the NDRC even calls on the media and public to play a role in supervising improvement efforts and calling out illegal activity. Combined with the price increases, this further underscores the Chinese government’s deep commitment to ensuring the fuel quality timeline is met and commensurate air quality improvements are achieved.

massive new state council air pollution control plan

September 12th, 2013

China’s State Council today released a massive new air pollution control plan, the latest in a string of Chinese government actions (and promises of future actions) following January’s “airpocalypse.” This is certainly the highest profile and most wide-reaching plan we’ve seen so far, underscoring the attention being paid at the highest levels of government to improving air quality throughout the country.

I tweeted my thoughts tonight as I read the plan, but before I go to bed I’ll summarize a few highlights here.

First let me say that I have little expertise on topics beyond motor vehicles and ambient air quality monitoring. Some of the initial reporting (Reuters, WSJ) has focused on the plan’s announcements related to power generation, coal consumption, industrial emissions, etc. I’m not commenting on those here not because they aren’t important, but just because that’s not what I work on.

That having been said, here’s what really impresses me about the plan:

Major focus on regional coordination to improve air quality across broad air basins as opposed to working city-by-city. The three big regions mentioned repeatedly in the plan are the greater Beijing region (including Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei), the Yangtze River Delta region (including Shanghai, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu), and the Pearl River Delta region in Guangdong. This is great news because, as I have noted, air pollution is absolutely a regional problem that requires regional solutions. Nice to see this being acknowledged by the State Council in such a foundational way.

– The plan establishes a system of binding ambient air quality improvement targets. I have previously written about how this is important for closing the loop between emissions and the air people are actually breathing, as well as for keeping officials accountable for environmental improvements that are tied to human health benefits. The specific targets in the plan are 10% reductions in PM10 concentrations for most cities, and 25%/20%/15% PM2.5 reduction goals for the greater BJ/YRD/PRD regions. The goals are all 2017 goals vs. 2012 baseline. There are some nice comments in the plan about the investigation and disciplining of officials who fail to meet the goals (though no specifics on penalties).

– Specific to motor vehicles, the plan reinforces the existing national fuel quality improvement timelines, but also establishes a new goal that China 5 gasoline and diesel (10ppm sulfur content) must be supplied to the three key regions by the end of 2015.

– The plan proposes massive scrappage goals for older, high polluting vehicles. China has hinted several times at goals to scrap all yellow-label vehicles (defined as Euro 0 gasoline and Euro 0, I, II diesel vehicles), but I’ve never seen such a clear goal codified before. The plan states that all YLVs nationwide should be scrapped by 2017. For the record, China had like 15 million yellow-label vehicles in 2011. That’s a huge number of vehicles to scrap. The plan also calls for “basically” scrapping all YLVs in the three key regions (5 million vehicles) by 2015, and scrapping all pre-2005 operational YLVs nationwide by 2015.

That’s the good news. Unfortunately, I wasn’t uniformly delighted by the plan. I am less than impressed by the following:

– I’m not sure why the plan sets PM10 reduction targets (as opposed to PM2.5) for some cities. PM2.5 is harder to control, but also more dangerous than PM2.5. China has new PM2.5 air quality standards and is completing a nationwide PM2.5 ambient air quality monitoring network, so why not jump straight to evaluation metrics based on PM2.5?

I’m deeply disappointed that the plan doesn’t call for any new vehicle emission standards. In this respect, the plan is much weaker than the plan Beijing released less than two weeks ago. Fuel quality improvements are critical because they enable more stringent standards to take effect. Scrappage programs are great, but they are most effective when the replacement vehicles are as clean as possible. Why would the State Council release such a comprehensive plan that doesn’t include any mention of upgrading vehicle emission standards? It is a strange and glaring omission to me.

Final note: here’s what I wish it said about vehicle emission standards: “taking advantage of the upgraded fuel supplies, China VI vehicle emission standards will be implemented in the three key regions in 2015, and nationwide in 2018.”

beijing’s comprehensive new motor vehicle emission control plans

September 6th, 2013

Earlier this week, Beijing’s government “declared war” (宣战) on PM2.5, releasing its most aggressive, detailed plan to date to reduce emissions and improve air quality. The overall goal of the plan is to reduce Beijing’s PM2.5 concentration about 25% from 2012 levels by 2017. The targets vary by district, but the overall average for the city – and the target for the most densely populated areas – is 60 ug/m3. Achieving this target would represent dramatic progress for the city, though even at 60 ug/m3 Beijing’s air quality would still be nearly double China’s ambient air quality annual standard (35 ug/m3).

Still, the plan is impressive in its breadth, specificity, and detailed assignment of responsibility. For each of the 84 separate measures described, the leading agencies – and even name of the person(s) on the hook – are mentioned.

Several of the key features of the plan have already been summarized by the media (e.g. Reuters, Xinhua, CRI). But I thought it would be worthwhile to translate and take a closer look at some of the specific actions related to motor vehicle emission control (Section 3 of the plan). The 22 measures described (#21-42) represent a truly comprehensive and world class approach to controlling air pollution from cars, buses, and trucks in the city. Beijing already has mainland China’s highest fuel quality (10 ppm S) and most stringent tailpipe emission standards (China V). Completing the following plan would cement Beijing’s position not just as a leader within China but as one of the world’s leading cities in terms of motor vehicle emission control.

Selected vehicle emission control measures from Beijing’s 2013-2017 Clean Air Action Plan:

#21: Control total vehicle population in the city to less than 6 million by the end of 2017. Given that the population of vehicles in Beijing already well exceeds 5 million, this will almost certainly mean reducing the current monthly new vehicle quota of 20,000.

#22: Reduce fuel consumption in the city by >5% in 2017 as compared to 2012, primarily through the promotion of new energy vehicles, small vehicles, and reducing overall vehicle use.

#23: Increase the cost of vehicle use through various measures, including progressive parking pricing and a congestion charge (though it should be noted that that the plan only commits to researching this, not to implementing it).

#24: Restrict vehicle use by time and location, including more strict controls on vehicles registered outside Beijing. Beijing already has such restrictions, but they will be expanded. For example, beginning in 2014, only China III and higher certified vehicles will be eligible to receive permits to regularly enter the 6th ring road. After 2015, only China IV and higher light-duty vehicles will be eligible for permits to enter the city, and yellow-label trucks (China II and older) will be banned altogether.

#26: Upgrade vehicle emission standards for on-road vehicles and off-road engines.

  • By the end of 2014, all new heavy-duty diesel vehicles should meet the China V standard, while all new heavy-duty diesel vehicles used in the city center should be equipped with DPFs. In addition, 100 public buses should meet the China VI standard (pilot), and Beijing EPB should begin research on the “Beijing 6” standards for LDVs.
  • Beginning in 2015, all off-road equipment must meet the Tier 4 standard or better.
  • By 2015, Beijing EPB will complete an ORVR standard and implementation plan for gasoline vehicles.
  • Strive to implement the China VI standards in 2016.

#27: Improve fuel quality by establishing a China 6 standard for local fuel quality and strive to implement it in 2016. Beijing has the potential to surpass Europe (currently at Euro 5) in this regard.

#28: Scrap one million older vehicles, including all yellow-label vehicles by 2015. Beginning 2014, preferentially support the replacement of vehicles with hybrid and energy-saving vehicles with displacement <1.6 L. This would presumably be an extension/expansion of Beijing’s existing scrappage programs, which are already China’s most successful. (Latest stats: Beijing scrapped nearly 150,000 vehicles in the first half of 2013.)

#29-37: Incredibly specific targets for introducing clean and alternative fuel vehicles (electric, hybrid, natural gas, etc.) in the public bus, taxi, long-distance bus, municipal service vehicles, freight, and low-speed vehicle fleets.

#38: Strive to have 200,000 new energy and clean energy vehicles in the city by the end of 2017.

#41: Strengthen in-use vehicle supervision and fuel quality compliance, including greatly expanding the number of random emissions inspections, building a full remote sensing network with 150 sets of equipment by 2016, and increasing the number of fuel quality checks including vapor recovery system evaluations.

#42: Set energy reduction standards for the transportation sector, including fuel consumption standards for freight vehicles. This will be interesting as it’s unclear what authority Beijing has to set or enforce such standards.

It’s really quite an impressive list. In many cases, there is significant additional detail beyond what I’ve described above, plus there are additional measures on public transit that I didn’t include here.

So, will it work? We’ll see. In any case, at this point it’s hard to imagine anything else Beijing could be doing beyond what’s in this plan to control emissions within its borders. Unfortunately, much of Beijing’s pollution is regional in nature, drifting in from the surrounding provinces. Hopefully, Beijing’s aggressive action demonstrated in this plan will spurn equivalent aggressive, comprehensive action at the regional and national levels.

what jumped out at me about the state council air quality announcement

June 16th, 2013

The State Council this week released a major new set of air quality improvement measures. For broad summaries, see Xinhua and/or Reuters.

Two things about the announcement I want to note:

First, perhaps the most important sentence in the announcement – that was not mentioned in the Xinhua or Reuters stories – is this one: “加强人口密集地区和重点大城市PM2.5治理,构建对各省(区、市)的大气环境整治目标责任考核体系。” This means, “Strengthen PM2.5 control in dense population areas and key, large cities. Build a target responsibility and evaluation system for cities and provinces based on air quality remediation.”

This is a big deal, because it indicates for the first time that local leaders in China will be on the hook not just for vague, game-able targets like total emissions reductions, but actual improvements in measured ambient air quality. This would be similar to the US’ system of State Implementation Plans (SIPs). I predict this will have major implications by forcing provinces and cities to start doing real air quality planning in which they close the loop between emissions control measures and the air quality people are actually breathing.

Note: Beijing and some other cities already have nascent closed-loop planning requirements (for example, in the State Council 12th Five-Year Plan for Environmental Protection and MEP’s 12th Five-Year Plan for Key Region Air Pollution Control). But this recent State Council announcement appears to be much broader, with strong indication that ambient air quality improvements will be “binding targets” (约束性目标) for local-level officials.

The second thing I found noteworthy about the State Council announcement are these two sentences right towards the beginning: “会议确定了防治工作十条措施。一是减少污染物排放。” This means, “The meeting confirmed 10 measures to prevent and control [pollution]. The first is reduce pollution emissions.” I LOL’ed when I read this. I love the directness and the simplicity. The sentences that follow go on to detail (slightly) more specifics, but I love the initial, direct recognition that the fundamental problem is that emissions are just too high. This echoes an argument I made a few months ago on this blog and in the NYT Chinese edition: “The fundamental solution to China’s air pollution crisis is the rapid introduction of deep, permanent emissions reduction policies for all sources, especially power plants, industrial factories, and motor vehicles.”

confusing numbers on ambient air quality compliance in china

June 13th, 2013

This post originally appeared on the ICCT Staff Blog.

A few days ago, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection released their annual State of the Environment report. I was struck in particular by the following statistic: the air quality in 88.5% of China’s 113 “key environmental protection cities” meets China’s air quality standard. Sounds pretty good, right? Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems with this number.

1) The first problem is that China’s current air quality standard, GB 3095-1996 (with revisions in 2000), is quite weak. Under this outdated standard, a city “in compliance” could still have an annual PM10 concentration as high as 100 ug/m^3 – a level 5 times higher than what’s recommended by the WHO. More importantly, the current standard doesn’t even include PM2.5 or ozone, the two ambient air pollutants of greatest long-term human health concern in urban megacities.

The good news is that last year, China adopted a new ambient air quality standard, GB 3095-2012. This new standard represents big progress in China by significantly tightening the acceptable limits for ambient air pollutant concentrations as well as adding standards for PM2.5 and ozone. Although the standard doesn’t enter into mandatory force until 2016, MEP’s 2012 annual report already reports compliance numbers according to the new standard. The numbers are bleak: just 23.9% of the 113 cities meet the new standard.

In other words, the introduction of the new standard causes the compliance rate of cities to drop from 88.5% to 23.9%. Although from a PR perspective this seems like a huge step backwards, I think MEP deserves tremendous credit for disclosing these data (and acknowledging the significant future challenges they imply).

2) The second problem with this statistic – % of cities in compliance – is that it ignores the significant variation in population among cities in China. Accordingly, it offers no indication of how many people in China are regularly breathing dangerous air – the key number we care about from a human health impacts perspective. The annual report doesn’t have a list of the cities along with their data, but it does include this graph, showing annual PM10 concentrations:

From this graph, it appears as though some really big cities – including Beijing (~20 million people), Tianjin (10 million), Chengdu (9 million), Xi’an (7 million), Urumqi (3 million), and Lanzhou (2.5 million) are not in compliance. (Plus, some of these may be far out of compliance – especially Urumqi, one of the few red dots on the map.) These six cities alone represent some 50 million people – similar to the populations of England or Spain – breathing air that doesn’t even meet China’s outdated, relatively loose air quality standard.

While this “% of cities in compliance” metric may be a useful gauge of general progress across the country, from a human health impacts perspective, a more meaningful statistic would be “urban population living in non-compliant areas.” The long-term goal of the Chinese government – indeed of all governments – should be to drive this number – evaluated according to global best practices ambient air quality standards – down to 0.

timeline of china’s official resonses to recent severe pollution

January 24th, 2013

List last updated Beijing time 4/1/13 6:00am

In the fall of 2011, public discontent over a series of poor air quality episodes in Beijing ultimately led to an impressive series of actions by China’s national Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) and the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB). It took a few months, but by February 2012, China had issued a revision to the ambient air quality standards, a new definition of the Air Quality Index, and by the end of the year, had completed and began operating a network of real-time PM2.5 monitors in 74 cities through the country.

So if the “wins” of the fall of 2011 were great strides towards monitoring and reporting, then here’s to hoping that this most recent episode of crazy bad air will turn into progress on actually reducing emissions themselves.

To help track the progress, I’m creating here a timeline of “official” Chinese government responses to date on the recent severe pollution in Beijing and many other cities across China. This includes major announcements I have seen from MEP and the Beijing EPB; if anyone knows of other key announcements I’ve missed, from other ministries, or from other cities like Shanghai, let me know and I’d be happy to add them. I will be curious to see where this list goes in the coming months.

Note 1: Major announcements shown in bold.
Note 2: MEP often back-dates announcements; the dates shown here are the “official” release dates, even though often the announcements don’t go up publicly until a week (or more) later.

1/12: “Crazy bad” air hits Beijing and other cities across China, sparking unprecedented reaction from domestic and international media and the general public
1/14: MEP issues its first official response, “Notice requiring each area to conscientiously conduct air quality monitoring and early warnings on heavy pollution days”  环境保护部发出通知要求各地认真做好重污染天气条件下空气质量监测预警工作
1/14: MEP issues a draft arsenic pollution prevention technical standard for public comment 关于征求《砷污染防治技术政策》(征求意见稿)意见的函
1/15: MEP and Beijing EPB issue a brief evaluation and explanation of the pollution, “Beiing EPB analysis of the extended severe pollution – large emissions the fundamental reason” 北京市环保局分析持续严重污染原因 排放量大是根本原因
1/15: Vice Premier Li Keqiang issues a brief and fairly anodyne comment pledging action: 李克强谈空气污染治理问题:我们必须有所作为
1/17: MEP issues the second round draft light-duty vehicle China 5 tailpipe emission standard for public comment 关于征求《轻型汽车污染物排放限值及测量方法(中国第五阶段)》(二次征求意见稿)意见的函
1/17: MEP issues a draft mercury pollution prevention technical standard for public comment 关于征求《汞污染防治技术政策》(征求意见稿)意见的函
1/18: Beijing EPB issues a super strange announcement warning websites not to claim official approval to report air quality numbers: 关于对部分社会化监测机构冒用我局名义进行虚假宣传有关说明的公告
1/19: Beijing issues a major new set of comprehensive regulations on air pollution prevention and control: 《北京市大气污染防治条例(草案送审稿)
1/23: Beijing’s mayor Wang Anshun makes a speech in the context of the Beijing People’s Congress with some numbers to back up the new regs (not sure the best link for this; perhaps this work report 《政府工作报告》解读:展望·2013年的北京)
1/23: Beijing issues new tailpipe emissions equivalent to Euro 5/V for gasoline cars and municipal diesel vehicles, implementation starts almost immediately on 2/1: 北京2月1日起执行第五阶段机动车排放标准
1/24: MEP Minister Zhou Shengxian holds National Environmental Protection Work meeting, pledges some actions 全国环境保护工作会议在京召开
1/24: Influential Tsinghua professor says China’s Clean Air Act revisions moving forward (I will update official link when I find one)  机动车污染防治条款浮出水面 环保不达标召回
1/25: MEP releases a notice about the implementation of Stage II emission limits for gasoline non-road mobile machinery: 关于实施国家第二阶段非道路移动机械用小型点燃式非手持式发动机排放标准的公告 (note: I can’t figure out how this announcement changes anything about existing schedule)
2/4: State Council issues roadmap for diesel and gasoline fuel quality improvement: 温家宝主持召开国务院常务会议 – 决定加快油品质量升级
2/6: MEP issues draft for public comment of “Atmospheric Fine Particle Pollution Prevention and Control Technology Policy (trial)” 环境空气细颗粒物污染防治技术政策(试行)
2/7: SAC issues new diesel fuel quality standard (China IV): GB19147-2013
2/16: MEP issues statement about air quality during the Chinese New Year holiday: 环境保护部通报春节期间我国部分城市空气质量状况
2/16: MEP approves Tsinghua University to build an air pollution control laboratory 关于同意建设国家环境保护大气复合污染来源与控制重点实验室的复函
2/17: MEP issues 12th Five-Year Plan for Environmental Standards: 关于印发《国家环境保护标准“十二五”发展规划》的通知
2/26: MEP releases two new draft standards on air quality monitoring, including monitor placement, for public comment: 关于征求《环境空气质量评价技术规范(试行)》等两项国家环境保护标准意见的函
3/15: Beijing releases the 2013 Clean Air Action Plan 我市发布实施2013年清洁空气行动计划
3/22: MEP releases a notice about “Implementation plan for stage II monitoring for ambient air quality standards” 关于印发《空气质量新标准第二阶段监测实施方案》的通知
3/29: Beijing and Tianjin sign an agreement to work together on improving air quality 京津两市签署协议加强环保合作共同致力于改善环境质量
3/29: News reports suggest that Beijing will spend 100 billion RMB to combat air pollution as part of its previously released 2013清洁空气行动计划

I will try to update this from time to time. Note that not all of these are direct responses to the pollution episodes; for example, the draft standards have been under development for months if not years. I don’t know whether or not the decision to release them for public comment now is linked to the recent pollution episode…

seeking solutions to china’s air pollution crisis

January 18th, 2013

A version of this essay, in Chinese, first appeared on the New York Times’ Chinese website.

Over the past week, hundreds of cities across China experienced dangerous spikes in air pollution levels. With air quality degrading to 20 or even 30 times worse than what is deemed safe by the World Health Organization (WHO), even our language strained to describe it (what can be worse than “hazardous”?). As visibility dropped to nearly zero and hospital admissions surged, the Chinese public began demanding both explanations and actions to prevent similar episodes in the future.

Unfortunately, extreme pollution events are common in China – especially in Beijing. This week’s pollution was notable for being the worst in recent memory, but the pollution accumulation spike was not unique – and next time it may even be worse. Even more important from a long-term health perspective, annual average air pollution levels in many cities in China remain unacceptably high. Until the government succeeds in implementing comprehensive policies requiring deep and permanent emissions reductions throughout the country, China will continue to struggle with air pollution for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, the policy and technology solutions to solving China’s air pollution crisis are well-known. Even better: these solutions will save millions of lives and can be implemented without sacrificing economic growth.

Causes of air pollution
China’s rapidly increasing numbers of coal-burning power plants, inefficient industrial facilities, and motor vehicles burning dirty fuel produce an enormous volume of air pollution every day. Pollutants directly emitted by these sources react with each other in the chemical soup that is the atmosphere, producing new types of “secondary” pollution including health-damaging ground-level ozone. This pollution is then transported through the atmosphere by prevailing meteorological conditions. When winds are stagnating – as was the case last weekend throughout much of eastern China – air pollution can accumulate rapidly. Geography can further complicate the pollution story. Cities bounded on two or more sides by mountains – such as Beijing and Los Angeles – are even more susceptible to severe pollution episodes. In Beijing’s case, winds blowing gently from the south carry air pollution from across central and northern China and trap it against the mountains to the north and west of the city.

Air pollution is regional
Because pollutants travel easily in the atmosphere (and some pollution sources, like vehicles, travel themselves), air pollution is fundamentally a regional problem, requiring regional or – even better – national solutions. Scientists have estimated that between one-third to two-thirds of Beijing’s pollution is caused by emissions in the surrounding provinces. Beijing’s government has implemented dramatic and impressive measures over the past decade to reduce pollution emissions within its boundaries; for example, the city has nearly eliminated coal-burning, implemented the most stringent vehicle emissions and fuel quality standards in the country, scrapped hundreds of thousands of high-emitting cars and trucks, and forced major industrial plants to relocate. However, pollution level spikes in the city continue to occur throughout the year, and average air pollution levels are far from meeting even China’s air quality standards. Though cities undoubtedly have a critical role to play in reducing emissions in China, air pollution cannot be solved exclusively at the municipal level.

Neither monitoring and reporting nor temporary policies are enough
The Chinese government has reacted to the recent, severe pollution episode by pledging to improve pollution data accuracy and transparency, and by implementing short-term, “emergency” pollution reduction policies like restricting government car use and temporarily halting factory production. Similar (though even more draconian) temporary policies were proven to be an effective regional air quality improvement strategy during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. However, although these temporary policies may have some impact on reducing the severity of short-term pollution level spikes, they will do little to address the elevated day-to-day average pollution levels that are killing hundreds of thousands of people in China every year.

As for data transparency improvements, these are important and welcome steps, particularly the recent launching of real-time air pollution reporting for 74 cities in China and pledges to improve early, public warning systems during hazardous pollution conditions. However, monitoring and reporting are fundamentally only descriptions of the problem, not solutions themselves.

Solutions: deep and permanent cuts
The fundamental solution to China’s air pollution crisis is the rapid introduction of deep, permanent emissions reduction policies for all sources, especially power plants, industrial factories, and motor vehicles. For such policies to succeed, many of the necessary steps – for example, confronting entrenched state-owned enterprises and significantly expanding and empowering China’s national environmental protection authority – will not be easy. But only through long-term reductions in the total volume of air pollution produced in the country will pollution level spikes be eliminated, and average air quality begin to improve in all Chinese cities.

Consider the case of motor vehicle emission control. With China now the global leader in automobile production and sales, emissions from cars, buses, and trucks are a large and growing – and sometimes overlooked – source of air pollution. Of particular concern are long-distance diesel trucks belching black smoke as they travel regionally between factories, distribution centers, and cities. China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection has already issued a policy, “China IV,” that aims to reduce dangerous particulate matter emissions from new trucks by 80 percent. However, MEP has been forced to delay nationwide implementation of these standards twice already – for a total of two and a half years – because the quality of diesel fuel produced by China’s state-owned refineries significantly lags behind what is required for the new truck technologies to function properly. Furthermore, immediate improvements in China’s nationwide fuel quality will not just enable the introduction of “China IV” trucks. They will also facilitate the introduction of future “China VI” vehicles requiring tailpipe filters which eliminate nearly all particle emissions.

Even once this and other standards do go into effect, the Chinese government faces severe capacity shortages to properly enforce them. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency employs some 18,000 government officials. How many are there in China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection? Just a few hundred.

Economic growth can continue
In the 1970s, the United States faced an air pollution crisis not so different from that of China today. Cities like Los Angeles regularly experienced both short-term spikes and dangerously elevated average levels of air pollution. But stringent, wide-reaching, permanent control programs implemented for a variety of sources in the United States have produced dramatic results. From 1980 to 2010, emissions of major air pollutants in the United States were cut by over half – even as GDP more than doubled. And because the societal costs of air pollution – hospital bills, reduced productivity and missed work days due to illness, premature death, agricultural loss, and more – can be exceptionally high, analyses in the US have regularly shown that pollution reduction policies deliver total societal benefits far outweighing their costs – often by a factor of five to ten or even higher.

China is no different. The enormous, current economic costs from the health burdens of air pollution in China have been estimated to total at least 1.2 percent of GDP. And this doesn’t even factor in additional “hidden” losses from, for example, damage to China’s international image. China’s past three decades of remarkable development have produced enormous gains for average citizens. But they have also produced dramatic increases in emissions of air pollutants. Fortunately, experience throughout the developed world proves that economic growth can thrive even while air pollution is reduced. This week, China’s Vice Premier Li Keqiang responded to China’s severe pollution with pledges of increased government action. Only if this action includes critical steps such as deep, permanent cuts in emissions from all sources, strong enabling policies like improvements in fuel quality, and broad expansion of China’s environmental authorities, will China’s days of “crazy bad” air finally be gone forever.