Every once in a while, the world’s spotlight focuses on Beijing’s air pollution, turning up the heat on the low simmer of anger, frustration, and confusion over the air quality here and threatening to make it boil over. In 2008, the spotlight came because of the approaching Olympics. In 2009, it was the launching of the US Embassy’s BeijingAir Twitter feed. In 2010, it was crazy bad air.
And now we have 2011′s version. The spotlight is back on Beijing’s poor air quality this week, not so much because of a singular event but because of a combination of a few things: a worse-than-average October, a few recent multiple-day hazardous air streaks, and a growing awareness of the disparity between the Chinese and US governments’ air quality metrics (awareness that is now spreading even more rapidly through Weibo, China’s Twitter). The Beijing EPB appears to have been caught flat-footed in responding to the recent surge of media reports – both domestic and international – that have appeared over the last few days.
But before we get into that, let’s look more closely at exactly what happened. The root cause seems to be October’s worse-than-average air quality. The Beijing’s EPB’s own monthly air quality reports for October (see 2011, 2010, 2009) reveal that the number of days exceeding China’s ambient air quality standard was much higher in October 2011 (12 days) than either October 2010 or October 2009 (6 and 7 days, respectively). Using data downloaded from MEP’s datacenter and converting to pollutant concentration (explanation here), I calculated that the average ambient PM10 concentration in October 2011 was 138 ug/m^3, which is around 16-17% worse than October 2010 (119 ug/m^3) or October 2009 (117 ug/m^3).
So we had a bad October, although let’s keep some objective perspective here: all of the numbers we’re talking about – 117, 119, 138 ug/m^3 – represent terrible air quality, and all exceed China’s own ambient air quality standard (which is already much looser than international standards). In other words, we went from terrible air to slightly more terrible air. But was the change significant enough to justify the huge increase in attention we’re seeing?
Well, confounding the situation was a series of consecutive really, really terrible days (October 8-10, 20-23, and 30-31), which the Beijing EPB attributed to poor meteorological conditions not favorable for pollution dispersion. During these streaks, the US Embassy’s meter routinely stated that that Beijing’s air was hazardous, and yet data from China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection frequently claimed just “slight pollution.” People were understandably confused – and angry.
Add to this the final ingredients: some terrific international reporting summarizing the issues (e.g. Barbara Demick in the LA Times), rapid information and rumor sharing on Weibo, and even domestic media outlets reporting on increased hospital visits and canceled flights, and the discrepancy between Chinese and US government readings. Even the Global Times featured a scorching opinion piece titled “Air pollution exposes public distrust“:
Public debates over China’s air pollution are getting intense…
Figures from the US Embassy, measured by the standard of PM2.5, revealed that Beijing’s air pollution reached “hazardous” levels. Their data is followed by more people. In comparison, Beijing authorities, who use the standard PM10, have been rebuked for deliberately hiding the truth from the public regarding air pollution.
All of this is putting the Beijing EPB on the hotseat in a major way. And the Beijing EPB – through its primary spokesperson, Du Shaozhong – has really struggled to come up with a consistent messaging strategy. They have varied between a few different types of responses:
- It’s not that bad. (October 12th in the Global Times -”It was only slight pollution, which was not bad enough for people to wear masks.“)
- The US Embassy data might not be correct. (November 2nd in the AFP – “I’m not clear about their way and methods of monitoring or how they ensure the accuracy.”
- Anyway, it’s inappropriate for China to be held to foreign standards. (November 1st in Caixin – “China’s air quality should not be judged from data released by foreign embassies in Beijing.”
- OK, we admit that we don’t monitor correctly, but we’re working on it. (November 3rd in the AFP – “The Beijing bureau applies the current national standard, which is undergoing an amendment…Technically we are ready to adopt the PM2.5 standard.”
The Chinese public isn’t buying the obfuscations. The Global Times editorial, while conceding that it is inappropriate for China at this stage of development to be held to international standards, concludes that the fundamental problem is that the Chinese government is losing credibility, because it is is afraid to tell people the truth, even though the truth is “bad news.”
James Fallows calls the current air pollution debate flare-up a “really big problem for China.” I agree, but let’s also remember that this isn’t a new problem. The key question now is, will this flare-up boil over long enough to force some fundamental changes in how air quality is measured and reported? The Beijing EPB successfully deflected the spotlights of 2008, 2009, and 2010 without any substantial changes. It will be interesting to see if this one passes with only more vague promises of future changes, or if we will finally see some concrete progress.