Archive for July, 2008

potential emergency pollution reduction policies

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

The Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection today released a very detailed list of emergency measures (in Chinese) to be implemented just before the Games start if there is continued concern about meeting air quality targets.

The plan includes further limits on production at factories in and around Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei, as well as even stricter vehicle restrictions. Under the new plan, in Beijing, in addition to the odd/even car restriction, vehicles whose license plate’s last digit matches the last digit of the date would also be banned (though the same exemptions as the odd/even ban would still apply – taxis, emergency vehicles, etc.). Tianjin and Hebei would implement a similar odd/even car ban as Beijing currently has.

The unusually specific document includes exact numbers of factories affected (105 in Beijing, 56 in Tianjin, 61 in Hebei). Reuters has more.

The need for an emergency plan demonstrates a few things:

First, Plan A didn’t work. Why didn’t it work? To be honest, I’m surprised that it didn’t, but I think there is a lot to be learned from the results. One big lesson is simply that Beijing’s air quality is affected by a number of complex variables, including pollutant emissions, geography, wind and weather, meaning that it is virtually impossible to predict day-to-day air quality variability, much less the specific impacts of specific control policies.

Second, the WRI’s Debbi Seligsohn has a good piece up about how it proves cars aren’t the problem, and I think this is a key point. Given that Beijing’s primary pollution problem is particulate matter, the majority of which likely stems from factories / construction sites / dust (not vehicles), one would not necessarily expect vehicle restrictions alone to have a large effect. (Though accompanying the 7/20 vehicles ban were parallel factory / construction restrictions.)

Third, as I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, it shows the Chinese government’s complete commitment to meeting its air quality targets, regardless of economic impact. My colleague at lunch was asking who is going to pay these factories for lost production…a question we may never know the answer to.

on censorship

Thursday, July 31st, 2008



interrupt

The home page of the NYTimes this morning features an article, “China to Limit Web Access During Olympic Games.” The crux of the article is that, despite Beijing’s promises to the contrary, reporters will not be given uncensored internet access during the Games. A BOCOG spokesperson claims that journalists will only have “convenient and sufficient” access.

Let me share a little background on China’s internet censorship for those who have never experienced it. The best article I’ve read about it is James Fallow’s Atlantic article, which is recommended if you want to know as much as anyone about how the Great Firewall (GFW) works and what the results are. For me personally, the GFW is a highly frustrating, ubiquitous part of life here in China; though there are ways around it, in my experience circumventing the GFW means slowing your net connection down to a crawl and even then never being certain that it will work.

One of the great and accurate points Fallows makes is that part of the power of China’s censorship is that they don’t tell you when a page is censored (vs. a server being down, or your internet connection being down). What this means is that if you get to a page that’s blocked, you aren’t going to dwell on the injustice of not being able to read whatever it is you wanted to read; rather, you are going to shrug and surf away to something else that’s more convenient. By the time you wonder whether it was a technical error or a censorship issue, you’ve forgotten what it was you were looking for. I have had conversations with Chinese friends who believe that there is no censorship; they simply believe that the internet is unreliable.

The censorship affects me personally in many ways, and in fact I’ve even changed my surfing habits because of it (which is, of course, exactly what the Chinese government wants). Some examples:

- I will rarely click through to a Wikipedia link because it was blocked for so long here in China. It’s accessible now, but my assumption is that it will be blocked again after the Games.

- Ditto for blogspot. Also accessible during the Games, but who knows afterwards (I presume I will have to move this blog, but we’ll see).

- Google image search almost never works, presumably because it grabs content from a bunch of different sites, some of which may be on the watch list. With Google image search there is a really interesting phenomenon: the first time I search, it will load a few images, then suddenly revert to a “connection has been reset” page. At this point, I usually can’t search anything on Google for a minute or so, then suddenly it works again. This is consistent with Fallows’ research.

- Many sites with the word “blog” in them are blocked by default. E.g. CNN’s politics blog, which I often click through to from CNN’s home page, forgetting that I haven’t been able to read it for more than a year.

cnn

- Of course, then you have all the obvious sensitive issues (I won’t list them here).

One of the worst parts is the unpredictability. Not only is the GFW constantly changing, it is (apparently) managed by different teams in different places, meaning that what is blocked at work may not be blocked at home or at a local Wifi spot. Of course, then there’s the paranoia of wondering if one day you will have searched something sensitive one too many times and will hear a knock on the door…

One more point I want to raise before closing. No Chinese person I know wants or likes the GFW. Those who know about it are frustrated by it and generally yearn for free access. However, two counterpoints must be raised here. First, I know many educated Chinese people who, though frustrated by the censorship, are quick to support a broad claim that with 1.3 billion people, you can’t possibly give everyone access to everything without inducing social unrest, so you have to proceed with opening up cautiously and slowly (which they claim is happening).

Second, and I’ll conclude with this, a recent Pew report indicates that 86% of Chinese people are satisfied with the direction of the country, and 82% think the economy is good. Think about those numbers for a moment. Due to such overwhelming support, many Chinese people seem more than willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt on most issues, including censorship.

API of 43

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008

In a dramatic turn-around, today’s API is just 43.Take a look at the API data since the car ban went into effect on 7/20:

api 720 to 730

The dramatic reduction from earlier this week seems clearly the result of light rain yesterday morning, which many people (including some media) are attributing to cloud seeding. I don’t doubt this, though neither I nor anyone else I know has a direct source to confirm it.

The four consecutive days (7/24 – 7/27) exceeding the Blue Sky Day limit were putting major pressure on Beijing to deliver some answers about why the temporary environmental measures weren’t working, and what they planned to do about it. If the data alone weren’t enough, foreign media had a field day taking pictures of Monday morning’s extreme haze.

Beijing’s three-fold response was as follows:

1) Delay publishing the API data. I don’t know if anyone else noticed this, but Monday’s API wasn’t made available until Tuesday, when both days were reported simultaneously as 96 and 90, respectively. Despite my previous post arguing against the trump card of doubting official data, China is nothing if not a place that makes you question and re-question what you think, and in this case I must say I have a hard time believing Monday’s 96 reading.

2) (Presumably) seed clouds, as mentioned previously, to wash away all the particulates in the air.

3) Launch a PR campain calling Monday’s event “fog” instead of “haze.”

And so the game continues.

air quality in beijing is improving

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008

Over the next few weeks, as Beijing’s air quality is scrutinized on a day-to-day basis, I hope that the big picture isn’t always forgotten. By that I mean, contrary to popular assumption, the air quality in Beijing is improving. The following two graphs show, respectively, progressively increasing annual numbers of Blue Sky Days in Beijing and progressively decreasing average concentrations of major pollutants here over the last 10 years or so.

blue sky days

reduction

Data Source: Beijing EPB Environmental Annual Reports (in Chinese)


Update 10/14/08: A report published in late September, 2008, raises valid questions about the integrity of the data used to count annual number of Blue Sky Days. More commentary in this post.

During the Games, I anticipate many Western media articles lambasting Beijing’s air quality. Unfortunately, I do not anticipate any such articles acknowledging the progress that Beijing has made, and I find that to be very unfortunate. Creating change in attitude and behavior in China – or anywhere, for that matter – requires tempering your criticism with positive encouragement.

It’s sort of like encouraging a friend to quit smoking. If your friend cuts down from two packs a day to one pack a day, the most effective strategy would be to say, “hey, great job, keep up the good work, soon you’ll be down to half a pack a day.” On the other hand, if you continue berating your friend with comments like, “I can’t believe you smoke, that is disgusting! We can’t be friends any more until you quit altogether,” then your friend will presumably either start ignoring your “advice” or just start lying to you.

On a related note, I am well aware that there are those who question the accuracy of China’s reported air quality data, and those who disagree with the use of the Blue Sky Day metric altogether. (I plan to write a post on this topic sometime over the next few days.) However, while I admit there is a definite need for independent confirmation of officially reported Chinese statistics, the “China’s data is unreliable” trump card must be played very cautiously, as it can be interpreted as unconstructive criticism and can often be counter-productive.

In May / June of this year, API data was not reported at all by MEP for a few weeks. At that time, my concern was that, facing strong international criticism of air quality, China’s strategy was simply to silence the science of the debate by withholding the data. I was very relieved to see the data go back online in mid-June, and was reminded that any data is better than no data.

where to find api data

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008

I often get asked where to find API data for Beijing. So here goes:

The easiest place is the home page of the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection: www.mep.gov.cn (Chinese), english.mep.gov.cn (English). Complete data for all cities in China is available here, http://datacenter.mep.gov.cn/TestRunQian/air_dairy.jsp, but only in Chinese. This page is often updated before the Ministry’s home page. Archived data is searchable at top of the same page, but again only in Chinese.


Update 2/3/09:
Above paragraph updated to reflect new location of complete air quality dataset. More information here and here.

The API is usually updated daily by MEP around 2-3pm each day. However, this is not always the case. Occasionally, like yesterday, the data will be mysteriously delayed or not reported at all. Sometimes, the Chinese site will be updated, but not the English site (as of 6:00pm on 7/29, the MEP English home page still only reports data from 7/23).

An alternative source for API data is the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau’s air quality page, http://www.bjepb.gov.cn/air2008/olympic.aspx, in English and Chinese. The Beijing EPB provides individual readings of meters across the city, but no single average number.

air quality targets

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008

Over the last few days, it seems that the hottest topic to report on with respect to the Olympics is air quality, or lack there of, in Beijing. I even gave an interview on NPR last Friday on this very topic. Here, I want to reiterate / clarify / expand on a couple of points I made that were either shortened or edited from the interview.

First of all, I believe strongly that Beijing will meet its air quality targets for the Olympics. Why? Two reasons: first, the Beijing government will keep implementing stricter and stricter policies until they’ve achieved their desired results. (Actually, I think that one reason they started many of the bans on 7/20 was to give themselves enough time to go to Plan B if Plan A didn’t work). Second, I don’t think the Olympic air quality targets are really all that strict.

As far as I can tell, Beijing’s sole Olympic air quality goal / promise is for every day of the Games to be a Blue Sky Day, meaning that the API is less than 100. But Western media seems to be overlooking two key points about this goal. First, the API only considers three pollutants – NO2, SO2, and PM10. Noticeably absent from this list are the two pollutants that athletes seem most concerned about, ozone and PM2.5. Though Beijing monitors ozone and has a national standard, the daily concentrations are not reported publicly. PM2.5 is not even monitored.

Second, a Blue Sky Day in Beijing with an API of 100 could have a PM concentration of 150 ug/m^3. While China still considers this “good” (良) quality air, the US EPA would caution, “Unusually sensitive people should consider reducing prolonged or heavy exertion,” calling this air “moderate.”

Which leads me to wonder about the following potential scenario: throughout the Games, Beijing celebrates meeting its air quality goals, and yet the international community still complains loudly about the poor air quality. If this happens, who’s at fault? Beijing for only meeting its domestic air quality targets instead of WHO targets, or the international community for not demanding more specific, more stringent air quality goals seven years ago?