About two weeks ago, the New York Times published an excellent article on Beijing’s air quality. I feel honored that the online version of the article links to this blog, but that’s not the only reason I think it’s a great piece. The title of the article, “Beijing’s Air Is Cleaner, but Far From Clean,” is itself a succinct and accurate portrayal of the current state of the air here, and is a strong prelude to the article’s comprehensive, balanced view of both the successes and challenges faced by Beijing.
The article’s author, Michael Wines, portrays Beijing’s air quality situation from four different angles / contexts, all of which I think are important and valid for anyone wishing to understand the complexity of the air pollution issue. Here, I will describe and expand upon these four contexts.
1) Both the Beijing government and local researchers assert that air quality has steadily improved over the past decade. In other words, we’re making progress:
Through September, the government counted 221 days in which the 0-to-500 pollution index — the lower the number, the better — was below 101. It was the greatest number of “blue-sky days,” as the city calls them, since daily measurements were first published in 1998.
At the same time, the city has recorded only 2 days with dangerously high air pollution. That is the lowest number in a decade, and fully 17 days fewer than were logged in the same period in 2000.
“For those of us who have been monitoring air pollutants for about 10 years, we see a clear reduction in pollution,” Zhu Tong, a professor and air pollution scientist at Peking University’s College of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, said in an interview.
2) Valid concerns exist over the accuracy and validity of the government data. In other words, be careful not to base all of your analysis on official statistics:
Outside experts caution that the city’s measurements are not just imprecise — they do not measure the tiniest particulates that are most damaging to lungs, for instance — but potentially misleading.
3) Although it appears that we are making progress, even the government’s official numbers show current air quality that is objectively still quite poor. In other words, we have a lot of work left to do:
And Beijing’s air remains far from pristine by any measure. The average concentration of particulates in city air during 2008, for example, was six times the ideal standard recommended by the World Health Organization. Indeed, Beijing has yet to meet the W.H.O.’s interim air standards for developing countries — or even the less stringent standards posted by China’s national government.
(Data supporting both of these claims may be found in these two posts from this blog: comparing international standards and summary of Beijing’s 2008 air quality.)
4) The improvements so far have been the result of impressive, massive, widespread programs and policies targeting air quality improvement; indeed such programs have been required for the government to have any chance in winning the “race” against the booming growth. In other words, although the government should be doing more, we recognize and applaud what they are already doing:
In the past decade, in fact, authorities have moved against air pollution problems with a tenacity that some environmentalists in developed nations, pitted against industry lobbyists and balky political machinery, can only envy.
The piece concludes by describing many such programs, including strict emission standards, fuel quality standards, introduction of alternative fuel buses, elimination of coal-fired burners, and more.
Rarely have I seen an article which succeeds at presenting all four perspectives. My general sense is that the Western media tends to focus largely on (2) and (3) (the data is suspect, air quality is still poor), whereas the Chinese media highlights (1) and (4) (we’re making progress, we have many successful programs in place). And yet, honest and comprehensive dialogue on solutions to Beijing’s air quality problem requires considering all four angles.
Lastly, my only objection to the article is the comparison of China’s scrappage program for high-emitting vehicles with the US’ Cash for Clunkers program. This is a little misleading, because the US program targets fuel economy while China’s program targets air pollutant emissions, but this is a subject for another post.
Disclosure: The author, Michael Wines, interviewed me for background information before writing the article.