turning the conversation about Beijing’s air pollution toward solutions

January 15th, 2013

This post originally appeared on the ICCT Staff Blog.

Over the past weekend, poor meteorological conditions contributed to a severe accumulation of air pollution in Beijing and hundreds of other cities in northern and eastern China. The extreme pollution was the worst in recent memory, yielding hundreds of media reports both within China and around the world. In addition, tens of millions took to Twitter and China’s Twitter-like service, Weibo, to post their thoughts and complaints. Unfortunately, such extreme pollution accumulation episodes are common in Beijing. And even when meteorological conditions are good, average pollution levels in Beijing are still unacceptably high. Until China takes critical steps towards reducing emissions, poor average air quality and occasional “crazy bad” episodes will continue.

Vehicles are a critical source to control
Vehicles are typically by far the largest source of human exposure to air pollution in densely packed urban areas. Plus, the contribution of vehicle emissions to air pollution in China is increasing as the population of motor vehicles in Beijing and around China continues to grow rapidly. Implementing stringent controls to mitigate the pollution impacts of China’s motor vehicles must be a key priority in parallel with controlling other sources such as factories and power plants.

Moreover, such action needs to take place at the national level. Because vehicles (especially trucks and long-distance buses) travel in and out of cities, only stringent national-level regulations can ensure that all vehicles are controlled effectively no matter where they travel. In recent years, Beijing has made a series of impressive steps towards controlling pollution within its own boundaries (e.g. the most stringent vehicle standards in the country, the cleanest fuel quality standards in the country, scrapping >500,000 old polluting vehicles over the past two years, and more). However, the city still struggles to improve air quality because perhaps 34%-70% of Beijing’s pollution is regional, coming from dirty vehicles and industrial sources polluting in the surrounding provinces.

Short-term actions to control motor vehicle emissions in China
Two simple steps could make a huge and near-term difference in improving air quality in Beijing and throughout China, while simultaneously demonstrating the new Chinese government’s commitment to reducing pollution emissions:

1) Immediately issue new fuel quality standards with supporting fiscal policies to reduce nationwide diesel sulfur levels to below 10 parts-per-million (ppm). Because high sulfur levels in fuel can poison advanced emission control technologies, improving fuel quality, especially reducing sulfur levels, is a critical prerequisite to introducing more stringent vehicle tailpipe emission standards. In 2011, China’s State Council announced that preferential fiscal policies would be utilized to encourage the supply of higher quality fuels nationwide. However, these fiscal policies have not yet been issued; a new fuel quality standard is stalled in the review phase; and nationwide diesel fuel sulfur levels continue to stagnate at unacceptable levels of 350ppm or higher. Resolving the fuel quality issue is a critical step to facilitate continued progress in vehicle emission control in China.

2) Ensure that the China IV truck and bus emission standards are implemented this year without further delays. China’s next stage nationwide tailpipe emission standard for trucks and buses, called “China IV” (equivalent to “Euro IV”), aims to cut emissions of PM and NOx from diesel vehicles by 80% and 30%, respectively. However, because these vehicles need to be fueled with higher quality fuel which is not yet supplied nationwide, MEP has twice delayed the introduction of these standards across China. The current implementation date is July 1, 2013. In parallel with resolving the fuel quality issue, China should commit to introducing these standards without any additional delays.

Medium and long-term action to control emissions from motor vehicles
The aforementioned short-term, immediate actions will not be enough to solve China’s long-term motor vehicle emissions problems. Last month, China laid out a number of impressive medium-to-long-term regional air quality improvement actions in its “12th Five-Year Plan for Air Pollution Prevention and Control in Key Regions.” While the plans outlined in the document represent significant progress, the plan does not call for the most important step China can make towards long-term control of vehicle emissions: establishing a clear nationwide timeline for the introduction of global best-practice “China VI/Euro VI” vehicle tailpipe emission standards. Only with the introduction of these standards will diesel trucks and buses – some of the most polluting vehicles on the road – be required to install particulate filters to reduce >99% of PM2.5 particle emissions. Filters belong on cars, not people.

Monitoring and reporting: a recent success story, but only the first steps
In the fall of 2011, public outcry over a series of heavy pollution episodes in Beijing was fanned by social media into enormous public pressure on Chinese authorities to respond. They did. In February 2012, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) issued two major new regulations: a revision to the ambient air quality standards to include PM2.5, and a new definition of China’s Air Quality Index. By the end of the year, China had completed and began operating a network of real-time PM2.5 monitors in 74 cities through the country. The Chinese government deserves praise for these important steps towards air pollution data transparency.

However, air quality monitoring and reporting are only first steps. Now the challenge is how to achieve rapid and significant emissions reductions in order to improve urban air quality. The above three steps – rapid improvement of fuel quality, introduction of China IV standards for trucks and buses this year, and establishment of a clear timeline for early introduction of China VI – will make huge differences in reducing toxic air pollution in Beijing and throughout China. In fall 2011, the public debate led directly to new standards on air quality monitoring and reporting. It’s time now to turn the current pressure towards the more fundamental issues of how and when to cut emissions themselves.

proof of linear extrapolation of embassy pm2.5-aqi relationship above 500

January 14th, 2013

Well, I’ve officially been called “geeky” on Twitter. I wear the label with pride. Not wanting to let my fans down, I decided to prove my earlier conjecture that the US Embassy linearly extrapolates the AQI-PM2.5 relationship from the EPA’s 400-500 range for concentration values above 500. As I noted before, this is NOT supported by regulatory language in the US, since the PM2.5 concentration almost never goes above 500.

Here’s a plot of the US EPA’s regulatory AQI-PM2.5 relationship definition (blue, stops at 500) as well as a smattering of data from the Embassy monitor (red). Looks pretty clear that the Embassy is just using the EPA’s same AQI-PM2.5 relationship from 400-500 for all values above that.

demystifying air quality numbers

January 13th, 2013

There are lots of numbers used to describe air quality these days in China. This post is intended as a glossary to demystify the different numbers currently used by various sources.

Concentration: The most direct way to report air pollution would be the concentration of a given pollutant in the air. This is straight-forward science and measurement. Example: PM2.5 concentration is 950 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m^3).

Although concentration is straightforward scientifically, there are a couple of problems with it from a public outreach perspective. First, not everyone understands what concentration is, or has context for what the numbers mean. Second, it’s difficult to compare different pollutants to each other, since each pollutant affects people differently depending on concentration. Therefore, concentrations are commonly normalized to some scale, on which multiple pollutants can be compared together and a single “score” covering multiple pollutants given to a city.

Confusingly, there are currently three such scales used to describe Chinese air quality: the US Air Quality Index (AQI), the current/outgoing Chinese Air Pollution Index (空气污染指数, API), and the current/future Chinese Air Quality Index (空气质量指数, AQI). Here are the technical details of each one:

US AQI: In the United States, concentrations are converted to the “Air Quality Index” using breakpoints defined in 40 CFR 58 Subpart G. (Edit 1/13/13: The EPA has just revised these breakpoints, though it hasn’t posted to the CFR yet. New breakpoints shown here and in the graph below.)

Note: the US does not define an AQI above 500. On airnow.gov, if you use the AQI->concentration calculator and input an AQI above 500, it gives an error message.

This means that AQIs reported by the Embassy above 500 are not in accordance with US regulations. My guess is that they linearly projected using the same slope as the 400 –> 500 line.

China API: China’s current but outgoing system of API uses breakpoints described in an old post of mine here. This is officially the current system in place nationwide, though it does not include PM2.5 or ozone.

China AQI: In February 2012 (regulation HJ 633—2012), China defined a new air quality index that includes PM2.5 and ozone. It doesn’t take effect nationwide until 2016, but Beijing and many other cities have already adopted it. The China AQI breakpoints are here:

Note that the Chinese system also does not define an index above 500. This is why the data reported by the BMEMC rail at 500 for AQI. I don’t think they project as the Embassy does.

Let’s do a quick comparison of the PM2.5 cutpoints in the US and in China:

1) The US is more strict at low concentrations.
2) The systems are identical above a concentration of 150 (AQI of 200).
3) Neither system is linear, which is annoying and non-intuitive.
4) It is also very annoying that the numbers are so close (as opposed to a 1-10 index, for example). This means it is very easy to confuse AQI and concentration.

– Concentration is the most accurate way of describing air pollution, but isn’t good for public awareness and comparing multiple pollutants.
– Both the US and China use AQI systems. Both systems go from 0-500, and are not technically defined above 500.
– The US and Chinese systems are identical above an index value of 200 (PM2.5 concentration of 150), but slightly different below this level.
– Because the systems aren’t identical and have different slopes, you have to be very careful when saying something like “PM2.5 is 150.” The meaning of this statement is different depending on if you mean concentration OR US AQI OR Chinese AQI.

Confused yet?

china’s real-time air pollution reporting gaining traction

January 13th, 2013

The lead news story on Sina right now is the intense pollution in Beijing and other cities in eastern China. The story is depressing, of course, but I’m encouraged that Sina is reporting numbers from the new Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center’s real-time reporting system. In this story, they note a maximum PM2.5 concentration reading of 950 ug/m3 in Tongzhou (also here, with graph.) A similar data point making the rounds on weibo and some news outlets is Xizhimen’s maximum PM10 level of 993 ug/m3, again reported based on Beijing’s own monitoring.

Why is this encouraging? Because it represents a much-needed shift away from reporting air quality data from the US Embassy – with all its political and data accuracy concerns – and towards China “owning” its own monitoring and reporting system.

beijing experiences worst pollution in recent memory

January 13th, 2013

Beijing’s air pollution levels have been “hazardous” or “beyond index” (by the US Embassy monitor‘s designation) for nearly three days. The city is in the midst of one of its epic, multiple-day extended pollution spells, also known as an “airpocalypse.” So what’s new or different about this one? Let’s take a look from a few angles.

A) The Data
Over the past 24 hours, the US Embassy’s monitor reported a maximum PM2.5 concentration of an incredible 886 ug/m3, certainly the highest I can ever remember. The 24-hour average was reported as 568.5 ug/m3. This 24-hour average can be compared against the Chinese, US, and recommended WHO 24-hour PM2.5 standards, which are 75 ug/m3, 35 ug/m3, and 25 ug/m3, respectively. So, the daily average pollution in Beijing was 7.6, 16.2, and 22.7 times over the standards in China, the US, and the WHO’s recommendations. That is certainly the worst 24-hour period I can remember, though I haven’t been tracking the data recently as closely as I used to.

What about Chinese data? Last year, Beijing began publishing hourly PM2.5 data; real-time monitoring was extended to 74 cities beginning this year. What do the Chinese data say? Well, there are two sites for checking real-time data. The Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau runs its own network of monitors and publishes the results at http://zx.bjmemc.com.cn/. The user interface is terrible, but I was able to see that the Agricultural Exhibition Center station – not too far from the Embassy – reported a PM2.5 concentration of 699 ug/m3 at 1am on 1/13/13:

The Embassy reported 731 at the same time. These are comparable enough. Not much consolation given the poor state of the air quality, but nice to know that the Chinese real-time PM2.5 data reporting system seems to be tracking the Embassy’s. This is major progress compared to, say, a year ago.

The second monitoring network is run by MEP’s China National Environmental Monitoring Center. The interface for their real-time reporting site,, is also terrible, but if you click through to Beijing you find it currently re-directs data for Beijing to the BJMEMC site. It’s nice to see these groups coordinating their data (which was not always the case), though it’s still not optimal to have the two systems with two interfaces.

Summary: the air quality is awful – perhaps the worst in recent memory. But at least both the US and Chinese government data more or less agree on just how bad it is.

B) The Causes
What’s causing this horrible pollution spell? Although it’s possible we’ll see some detailed studies come out in the coming months that offer some specific or concrete explanation, my guess is that this particular episode was induced by weather patterns. Some are theorizing that it’s due to more coal being burned because of the uncharacteristically cold weather. That’s possible, though I think it is unlikely that this pollution episode is caused primarily by a discrete increase of direct pollutant emissions. Pollution in Beijing is influenced by many factors, but the main ones are:

1) Direct pollutant emissions from factories, vehicles, power plants, etc. across all of Northern China. Beijing has made a lot of progress in recent years in controlling emissions within the city’s municipal boundaries, but the truth is pollution is regional. Whatever happens in all the major provinces around Beijing – Tianjin, Hebei, Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, etc., will effect Beijing. These provinces are developing rapidly – more factories, more power plants, more cars, more coal burning – and it’s making Beijing’s efforts to clean up all that much more difficult. Over the past few weeks, there may have been some increase in emissions due to the severe cold, but I don’t think this discrete increase would have been enough alone to cause a spike of 2 or 5 or 10 times the pollution in Beijing.

2) Secondary pollution. The atmosphere is quite the chemical soup. While direct emissions matter, a lot of air pollution is secondary, meaning that it is caused by directly emitted pollutants interacting with each other in the atmosphere, giving rise to new forms of “secondary” pollution. Much PM2.5 is this secondary pollution. Of course, the longer pollutants are allowed to interact with each other, the crazier and more extreme the secondary pollution will become. This bring me to:

3) Weather. Anyone who has lived in Beijing knows that the primary factor influencing a blue sky day vs. a pea soup sky day is the wind. If there are a few consecutive days where the winds are stagnant – or blowing lightly from the south and trapping pollution against the mountains in northern and northwestern Beijing – the pollution is going to accumulate rapidly. Throw in some increases in direct pollutant emissions from the cold weather, and the chemical soup starts really brewing. The result? Spikes in temporary pollution, in this case all the way above 800. I can’t put my finger on a site right now that can show the air trajectories in northern China over the past few days, but I would be very confident they are showing stagnant air in and around Beijing.

Don’t misinterpret me; I’m not blaming the weather for Beijing’s pollution. Clearly the long-term solution has to be to reduce direct pollutant emissions, as policymakers can’t control atmospheric or weather conditions that give rise to secondary pollution and accumulating pollution spikes. But if you want to point to a discrete reason why there is a spike right now, I think you have to point to weather patterns suboptimal for pollution dispersion, possibly confounded by slight increases in regional direct emissions due to more coal burning for home heating.

C) The Politics
It will be interesting to see the Chinese government’s reaction to this episode. We already have one depressing reaction – Xinhua’s tweet about the “fog” – though no one’s buying it and it’s hard to believe they can get away with this sort of spin much longer. What is more interesting to me is the unfortunate timing of this pollution event. After all, the Chinese government has just racked up a couple of positive wins in air pollution control, specifically:

1) December 5, 2012: MEP last month just released a major regional air quality improvement plan (《重点区域大气污染防治“十二五”规划》), which, for the first time, calls for specific reductions in ambient pollution levels in key cities for a variety of pollutants including PM2.5, and requires cities to develop plans to meet these reduction targets. More on this in a separate post, but it represents a major step forward in comprehensive, integrated, regional air quality management.
2) January 1, 2013: MEP just begain releasing real-time PM2.5 data for 74 cities, a major first step towards data transparency that should be lauded as progress. Although this is only the first step (see Ma Jun’s nice article on this, “We’re winning the air pollution data battle – so what next?“), it is unfortunate that MEP couldn’t bask in a little bit of positive public reaction prior to being slammed with the current pollution crisis.

it’s funny what you miss

September 26th, 2012

I left Beijing a couple of months ago after nearly seven years. Coincidentally, several other expats left around the same time and decided to publish acerbic/brutally direct open commentaries justifying their decisions (see: You’ll never be Chinese, Why I’m Leaving China, even an NYT round-up, this hilarious parody, etc.). Don’t worry though. This isn’t a Why I Left China post.

This is a post simply to note an unexpected way in which I found myself missing Beijing this morning. I awoke in San Francisco to find a classic SF fog enveloping the city. When I arrived at my office, I looked out the window, beheld the soupy gray view, and instantly, viscerally felt transported back to Beijing, where I spent so many days gazing out the window onto a similarly apocalyptic, hazy scene. I immediately felt this rush of, well, nostalgia. Which is crazy, of course – of the many wonderful things I miss about Beijing, pollution is not generally one of them – but nevertheless, it took me back for just an instant to the amazing experience of living and working and experiencing China right now. And it felt great.

Behold the evidence; BJ vs. SF:

One is fog; the other, “fog.”

nyt publishes long article on beijing’s air pollution, but makes mistake in second paragraph

January 29th, 2012

Update 1/31/12: The story online has been corrected with a correction issued. Kudos to the NYT for ensuring even a minor mistake like this gets fixed.

Two days ago, the New York Times published a good article summarizing much of the current debate and recent progress regarding air pollution monitoring and reporting in Beijing.

Unfortunately, there is an error in the fourth sentence of the article:

Officials have claimed for years that the air quality in fast-growing China is constantly improving. Beijing, for example, was said to have experienced a record 274 “blue sky” days in 2011, a statistic belied by the heavy smog smothering the city for much of the year.

There are actually two errors here. First, Beijing reported 286 Blue Sky Days in 2011. 274 was simply their target for the year, which they achieved early and then exceeded. This is even stated clearly in the Xinhua article linked to directly from the NYT story. Second, even if Beijing had achieved 274 Blue Sky Days, this would not have been a record; the number of Blue Sky Days was above 274 in both 2009 and 2010.

The mistake doesn’t really impact the overall context or conclusions of the story, so from that perspective I suppose it can be considered minor. However, in my experience the Chinese are very quick to highlight small mistakes in Western media reports, and on this basis discredit entire articles (or even entire news sources). I worry that small mistakes like this undermine the impact of otherwise good reporting by Western journalists here.

I’m also just surprised something so basic got past the NYT’s fact checkers.

beijing claims pm2.5 reductions

January 16th, 2012

Among all the recent PM2.5 news, this chart from an early January CCTV report caught my eye:

pm25 intensity

I couldn’t find this data on the Beijing EPB website to verify, so if anyone out there does find an original source please let me know. It is a little strange that numbers for 2000 and 2005 are reported, since the Beijing EPB claims to have only monitored PM2.5 since 2006, but let’s ignore that for a moment and assume that CCTV has reported this accurately. This would be the first time that I’ve seen official PM2.5 numbers reported by the Beijing EPB, so they are worth examining. Specifically, let’s look at two questions:

1) Is this declining trend correct?
2) Are these absolute numbers credible?

Let’s look at these questions one at a time. The Beijing EPB claim of declining PM2.5 concentration especially surprised me because, just two months ago, Xinhua cited a Chinese Academy of Science report suggesting that PM2.5 has been increasing 3-4% per year. A more detailed description in the People’s Daily said this trend has been occurring since 1998. I haven’t seen the original CAS report, so I don’t know the details behind the study (e.g. how many monitoring stations, locations, etc.). Nonetheless, it’s not very encouraging to see this contradiction — and one coming from a government source. Let’s see how and if Beijing EPB tries to reconcile this contradiction over the year as more and more PM2.5 data come out.

As for other data sources, I still haven’t seen any public, peer-reviewed studies that show clear long-term PM2.5 trends for Beijing. If anyone out there knows of any, please let me know by e-mail or the comments. My hunch is that the few research teams out there (e.g. universities) who do have continuous PM2.5 monitoring data over a long time series are unwilling to publish them because those data are fairly sensitive, but I may be wrong.

In the absence of clear long-term trend studies, all we have are a few snapshots in the literature. Many reports just cover one or two monitors over a limited time. Still, let’s take a look at the reports as a way of gauging the credibility of the Beijing EPB-reported data. In other words, how do the Beijing EPB-reported PM2.5 numbers compare against the few other independent PM2.5 estimates we have?

Well, the first obvious place to look is the US Embassy’s monitor. The Twitter feed from the US Embassy’s PM2.5 monitor only reports hourly and daily values, although both the new foggybeijing site and Steve Andrews’ chinadialogue piece both present annual summaries suggesting that the annual average PM2.5 from that monitor was around 100 ug/m3 in 2010-2011. This is significantly higher than the Beijing EPB 2010 figures of 70-80 ug/m3. So, we have one dissenting data point, but remember it’s only one point. The Beijing EPB could easily (and perhaps justifiably) attribute this discrepancy to the fact that their data is an average over the entire city, whereas the Embassy monitor is at a single spot in a heavily-trafficked area. We’ll have to wait and see how they explain that.

Next let’s look at some reported values in the peer-reviewed literature. Here’s a good summary “lit review”-style paragraph from Chan and Yao, 2008:

PM2.5 measurements have been widely reported in Beijing in the last 10 years. He et al. (2001) made the first comprehensive PM2.5 measurements in Beijing and reported that the annual average of PM2.5 was 115 ug/m3 at Chegongzhung (an urban site) from September 1999 to September 2000 [Vance edit: the He et al. paper also reports a second site at 127 ug/m3]. The annual average was 96.5 ug/m3 at the same site from August 2001 to September 2002 and the decrease was attributed to the air pollution control measures carried out in Beijing since 1998 (Duan et al., 2006). On the basis of measurements on selected days in four seasons, Zheng M. et al. (2005) and Wang J. et al. (2004) reported annual averages of PM2.5 in 2000 and in 2001 of 101.4 mg m3 and 109.6 ug/m3, respectively. Wang Y. et al. (2005a) reported that the average of PM2.5 from 2001–2003 was 154.3 ug/m3, significantly higher than the values reported by the other studies mentioned above.

One more I found in addition to this was Yang et al. (2011), who reported PM.5 values around 2005-2006 of 118.5 ± 40.6 ug/m3.

So, we can summarize our brief data investigation as follows:

Pm25 estimates

I must emphasize very clearly that all these data are not directly comparable; I present them here merely as a first-order snapshot of the PM2.5 levels at various times and places around the city. (To give a sense of how variable the levels can be across the city, consider this quote from Yang et al., 2001: “In Beijing, annual average PM2.5 concentrations varied by 50 ug/m3 (near three quarters of mean concentration at the rural site) between the paired rural/urban sites over a distance of 70km.”) But it does seem as though many of these reported PM2.5 levels are higher than what the Beijing EPB has claimed (via CCTV), and that no clear trends are visible.

A (brief) review of independent literature studies does not immediately support the Beijing EPB’s reported PM2.5 numbers and declining trend for Beijing. In addition to several individual data points showing higher PM2.5 levels, it’s concerning that there is a Chinese Academy of Sciences study that apparently shows an increasing trend of PM2.5 — the exact opposite of that claimed by the Beijing EPB. However, with such limited data, we can’t really say comprehensively or definitively whether the Beijing EPB data are valid or not. The only thing I can say 100% conclusively is that I’m eagerly awaiting the release of more data that back up their claims (or, alternatively, the public release of more clear long-term PM2.5 trend studies from independent research groups).

translation of beijiing’s pm2.5 announcement

January 11th, 2012

On January 6th, the Beijing EPB made a major announcement regarding the plan for monitoring and reporting PM2.5 this year. This is huge and terrific news, with most media sites characterizing the announcement as a clear and concrete result of the recent public outcry over Beijing’s air quality (for example, see BBC, Reuters, China Daily, AP, NYT, CNN, and two WSJ pieces: “Beijing Caves…” and “Beijing Bows…“).

Because this is such a big announcement, I’m going to translate the entire thing here. I wanted to do so because there are a lot of positive developments in the announcement that weren’t mentioned in most of the brief news stories, and also because I’ve noticed some minor mischaracterizations in the media about what it actually says.

The great news, only some of which was reported by the media (not by error, probably just because of space constraints) includes:

– In addition to PM2.5 reporting, hourly ozone reporting should also start by the end of the year;
– Individual, hourly data points for all stations will be reported as opposed to city-wide averages;
– The language used to describe the pollution will be changed (presumably to reflect the fact that “Blue Sky Days” here frequently aren’t, and China’s current designation of “slight pollution” is, well, not exactly slight.)

These are all enumerated in the final paragraph of the announcement, which reads like an awesomely affirmative response to a Beijing air quality information disclosure wish list.

My only minor complaint with the international coverage is that some of it implies that Beijing will begin widespread PM2.5 reporting by Spring Festival (a couple of weeks from now). Actually, the announcement only states that some “research-type” PM2.5 data will begin to be released by Spring Festival (to give credit, the BBC was the only media I read that really nailed this). Full PM2.5 reporting for the city will (hopefully) be completed by the end of the year. The announcement is filled with all sorts of caveats about how much work it will take, and about the need for the new national standards and relevant regulations to be released, etc. In other words, Beijing is very much downplaying the expectations here. Regardless, it’s still just wonderful news that has been a long time coming.

Anyway, onto the translation:

Source: http://www.bjepb.gov.cn/portal0/tab189/info8308.htm
Translated by www.livefrombeijing.com
Bold added by translator

Beijing EPB responds to journalists’ questions about launching PM2.5 monitoring and improving the system for air quality information disclosure

On January 5th, a representative from the Beijing EPB Environmental Monitoring Division answered journalists’ questions on Beijing’s plans to launch PM2.5 monitoring and improve the system for air quality information disclosure.

1. Regarding the status of Beijing’s air quality monitoring

In 1984, Beijing completed the initial phase of construction of an air quality monitoring system, and began operation. At that time there were 8 automatic air quality monitoring stations, mainly distributed in the 8 districts of the city at that time. Beginning in 2000, Beijing began expanding and improving the air quality monitoring system. By the time of the Olympics, Beijing had set up 27 automatic air quality monitoring stations spread out over all the districts and counties in the entire city, and had begun automatic monitoring. According to the requirements of the national ambient air quality monitoring regulations, concentrations of SO2, NO2, PM10, and other pollutants were automatically monitored 24 hours per day. Weekly reports, daily reports, and daily forecasts of air quality started in 1998, 1999, and 2001 respectively.

2. Regarding the status of developing PM2.5 monitoring in Beijing

Currently, Beijing has not comprehensively and systematically developed regular monitoring of PM2.5. In accordance with Beijing’s atmospheric pollution prevention program, since 2006 the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center began conducting research-type monitoring of PM2.5 using an integrated observation lab. After the Olympics, we selected a few atmospheric monitoring stations to develop staged research-type PM2.5 monitoring at different times.

3. Regarding plans for monitoring and reporting PM2.5

现在我们已经启动了PM2.5监测网络建设,计划年底前全部完成。根据建设进度,完成一个点站建设就发布一个点站监测信息,同时完善整体空气质量信息发布方式。计划在春节前,首先通过监测中心网站等实时发布各监测子站二氧化硫(SO2)、二氧化氮(NO2)、可吸入颗粒物(PM10)3项常规污染物每小时的浓度数据。同时公布综合观测实验室的PM2.5 研究性监测数据,供市民参考。国家新标准和相关监测规范发布后,将按照监测规范,利用现有仪器设备先在6个监测子站开展PM2.5监测,同时发布实时数据;根据监测设备采购、调试工作进展,会逐步增加PM2.5监测子站,力争年底前完成全市的PM2.5监测站点建设并发布实时监测数据。
We have already begun building the PM2.5 monitoring network, and plan to complete it by the end of the year. In accordance with the construction progress, as we complete each station, we will report that station’s monitoring information. In parallel, we will improve the overall method of reporting air quality information. First, before Spring Festival, we plan to report real-time, hourly concentration data for three pollutants – SO2, NO2, and PM10 –  through the website of the environmental monitoring center. At the same time, we will report the research-type monitoring data of PM2.5 from the integrated observation lab for the public to consult. After the national standard and relevant monitoring regulations have been issued, in accordance with the regulations, we will use existing PM2.5 monitoring equipment to begin monitoring PM2.5 at 6 monitoring stations, and simultaneously report real-time data. In accordance with progress on equipment procurement and adjustment, we will gradually increase the PM2.5 monitoring stations, trying very hard to finish the entire city’s monitoring stations and issuing their real-time monitoring data by the end of the year.

4. Regarding preparation work for developing PM2.5 monitoring

There are four aspects we need to prepare in order to launch PM2.5 monitoring. One, apply for funding and procure the monitoring equipment; two, optimize the placement of the monitoring network, construct the stations, computers, and debug the system; three, upgrade the website of the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center and adjust the the information system for collecting and analyzing the air quality monitoring data; four, conduct staff training.

5. Regarding improving the system for air quality information disclosure

We are preparing to improve the method of air quality information disclosure from five aspects. In accordance with the new national standard and technical regulations for monitoring: one, disclose monitoring information from all pollutants obtained by the regular automatic monitor, including PM2.5 and ozone monitoring data; two, learning from international methods, change from the past method of strongly emphasizing the disclosure of one average data point for the city to disclosing the monitoring information from each station, in order that citizens can understand the air quality situation in the area in which they live; three, change from issuing only a daily 24-hour average to issuing hourly data for each pollutant for each station; four, entrust the Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center website to add a special platform for air quality information; fifth, change the notification language for air quality information disclosure in order to be closer to citizens’ lives and serve them better.

summary of beijing’s 2011 air quality

December 31st, 2011

Each year for the past few years around this time, I’ve posted an overall summary of Beijing’s annual air quality (links to 2010, 2009, 2008). Although I’ve had less time this year to update this blog regularly, I thought I would come out of hiding this weekend to take a look again at overall trends.

I won’t repeat my methodology in this post (it’s described in detail in previous years’ summaries); let’s just jump straight to the conclusions.

Using MEP’s own data, I calculate that Beijing in 2011 had a Blue Sky Day count of 286 and a calculated average PM10 concentration of 114 ug/m3. Trends of Beijing’s Blue Sky Days and PM10 concentrations are shown here:

beijing air quality trends 00-11 v2

Update 1/29/12: I originally posted a 2011 Blue Sky Day count of 285, along with a comment (below) that I thought the Beijing EPB’s count of 286 was an error. I concluded this based on the fact that MEP’s datacenter contains 365 data points for 2011, of which only 285 are Blue Sky Days. It turns out, though, that one day (October 28th) is missing from the data set, while another day (November 1st) is duplicated. I did not notice this in my initial analysis. The duplicated day, November 1st, was not a Blue Sky Day. If we assume that the missing day, October 28th, was a Blue Sky Day (which appears to be supported by Beijing EPB data), then the Beijing EPB’s count of 286 is correct. The graph above has been updated to account for the new Blue Sky Day total. Note that this change does not affect my calculated PM10 average, which matches that reported by the Beijing EPB.

The good news:
According to MEP’s data, Beijing’s annual average PM10 concentration (shown in the dark blue curve) decreased slightly from 2010 to 2011. This is a welcome change after the stagnation we saw from 2008-2010. From the perspective of this metric, it appears as though Beijing is showing some (minor) progress again in improving air quality. Also encouraging was the fact that the number of Grade I days (what China calls “excellent” air quality) went up significantly, as shown in the light blue curve in the above graph. The number of Grade I days was bolstered by an absolutely incredible January 2011, which was Beijing’s best air quality month in at least a decade.

Also in the “good news” category, though independent of analysis of MEP’s air quality data: In the last two months of the year, we saw a massive proliferation of air quality discussion among the public and in the media here unlike anything we have seen since the Olympics. Why now is not so clear – in early November I postulated that it was due to a combination of a few terrible air quality streaks in October and growing public awareness of air pollution driven by social media (see similar analysis in AFP, WSJ, and Time). Regardless of the specific reasons, the result has been incredible public pressure on the Chinese government to take more aggressive action on monitoring, reporting, and controlling air pollution, especially PM2.5. Incredibly, this pressure appears to have succeeded in driving some change: most notably, MEP has now publicly committed to a timetable for measuring and reporting PM2.5; the People’s Daily even noted, “The media called the schedule published at the end of 2011, ‘A symbol of the public opinion’s victory in the air protection battle.’” More analysis of the specific PM2.5 targets and timetables in another post.

The bad news:
Beijing’s air quality still does not meet China’s own air quality standard, and is still nearly six times worse than the recommended particulate matter target set by the WHO. In other words, the air here is still just awful. (We even saw reports this year (the first in the Chinese media that I can remember) directly linking air pollution episodes to acute health impacts and even grounded flights.)

And, although I claimed some minor progress earlier, the progress was far from consistent. Removing the data from the uncharacteristically wonderful month of January, the average PM10 concentration for February through December 2011 turns out to be 119 ug/m3 – essentially unchanged from 2009 and 2010. This directly contradicts Beijing EPB comments made at the end of January that that progress was “far from one-off.

Even more bad news: the 2011 Blue Sky Day count exceeded Beijing’s goal of 274, but came up one day short of last year’s total of 286. This represents the first time in at least a decade that the annual number of Blue Sky Days has decreased year-on-year. (I should note here, however, that the Beijing EPB today reported 286 Blue Sky Days in 2011 – the same number as in 2010 – but I believe this to be an error. The Beijing EPB reported 19 Blue Sky Days in October, although my careful count of the data on MEP’s datacenter shows just 18 that month. I’ll keep my eye on the public statements to see if they fix this error in subsequent annual summaries.) (Edit 1/29/12: See note above regarding the resolution to the data discrepancy noted in this paragraph.)

Therefore, by China’s own currently reported data (both PM10 numbers and number of Blue Sky Days), Beijing’s air quality improvement efforts are really showing negligible progress. Even worse: Chinese data currently only cover PM10, not PM2.5, which, according to recent Chinese media reports, is actually getting worse here in Beijing. This is bad news, for a few reasons. Mainly, it’s bad news because the health impacts of PM2.5 are considerably worse than those of PM10. However, it’s also bad news politically for China, and hints at the challenges MEP will have when it begins reporting PM2.5. After claiming consistent progress for many years, how will MEP/Beijing EPB manage the fact that their new indicator shows the opposite trend?

Much more news to report on from this year, including Steve Andrews’ scathing critique of Beijing’s air quality from earlier this month, but further analysis on that will have to wait until next year.

Happy New Year everyone! Looks like it’s going to be an excited 2012 for all us air quality wonks.