The myth of “low pollution”

Guest post by chinadialogue intern Peng Shiliu,

When Beijing rated its air pollution as “mild”, the US Embassy ranked it as “hazardous”, based on its own assessment. This has triggered public outcry on microblogs, which have again put the credibility of official data on the spot. The Twitter account of the US embassy, BeijingAir, which releases near real time air quality data, has gained more and more followers. Citizens are also voluntarily joining forces to monitor airborne PM 2.5, particulate matter tiny enough to penetrate lung tissue, and share daily results online. In the words of Lei Wanyun, an information specialist from China Pharma  Holdings, “After public concern about the collapse of food security system, air quality is becoming the new focal point of public anxiety.”

It was announced early last year that new pollutants would be included in the air quality monitoring metrics. But after almost two years, progress is disappointing: the country has not yet incorporated PM 2.5 air quality standards into environmental monitoring practice, and PM 2.5 is not yet included in the mandatory air quality assessment standards of cities. The reason behind this is not technical limitation, but more likely the government’s fear of losing face when data from so many cities becomes unpresentable in light of tighter measurement standards.

PM 2.5 standards were long ago introduced in the United States and European Union. Many big cities in developing countries such as Mexico City and New Delhi have also incorporated such standards into their monitoring systems and data publication practices. China still insists on using its own metrics and assessing air pollution as mild. Is this wilful blindness? “We have had more than 10 years of public air quality data, but still people don’t know whether the air today is safe or not,” said environmentalist Li Hao.

We should of course acknowledge the great efforts the Chinese government has made in recent years to improve the environment. Europe and America also had to go through a process of improving urban air quality. With higher public awareness and improved media freedom in China, the public is taking on an increasingly important monitoring role. However, in order to get rid of the smoggy air and restore blue sky in Beijing, we need to face the problem with an open mind. That is much more important than saving face.

Translated by chinadialogue volunteer Meng Li

Image by rytc