Public air quality verification in Beijing

Dec 01 2011
VERTIC Blog >> Environment

Grete Luxbacher, London

Earlier this month China announced the opening of a Beijing-based air quality monitoring centre to the public, and the adoption of stricter air quality monitoring standards. This announcement comes on the back of a social media campaign launched by high-profile figures within Chinese society. These recent changes raise questions of the transparency of China’s environmental monitoring system.

In recent months, China has come under increased scrutiny over its air quality. This scrutiny stems from discrepancies between air quality reports released by Chinese monitoring centres and the US Embassy in Beijing. China is no stranger to controversy involving its levels of pollution. The World Health Organization (WHO) asserts that China has some of the world’s most hazardous air pollution, which has resulted in the highest incidence of premature deaths annually.

Air Quality Measurement
According to a 2005 WHO report on air quality guidelines, the four most common air pollutants are particulate matter (PM), ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2). The WHO has published recommended levels of these pollutants for both long and short-term exposure. In an interview with Chinese media, Hao Jiming, an environmental science and engineering professor at Tsinghua University, claims that ‘China is among the worst polluted places by particulate matter in the world’, and its levels far exceed those set by WHO. However, these WHO levels are only suggestions and it is up to individual countries to set their own air quality standards based upon their capabilities to effectively carry out the necessary actions.

The differences between national air quality measurement standards became apparent when the US Embassy in Beijing began releasing their own air quality reports on Twitter and mobile phone applications that significantly differed from Beijing’s own reports. The difference derived from the indicator used by each reporting organisation. Within air quality measurement there are several different indicators, which include coarse (PM10), fine (PM2.5), and ultra-fine (UF) particles.

The WHO defines coarse particles as those whose diameters are less than 10 micrometres. These particles are usually the result of mechanical processes. For their part, fine particles’ diameters are less than 2.5 micrometres and are produced by combustion processes. While both of these particles have health implications, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that those risks posed by fine particles are greater due to their ability to become lodged deep in the lungs. Despite the fact that the health implications from the PM2.5 level are greater, air quality measurements are most commonly carried out at the PM10 level because more medical research has been carried out on this indicator.

Many Beijing residents became concerned when the US Embassy in Beijing began reporting their own air quality findings. Currently, China measures particulate matter using the PM10 indicator, whereas the US uses both the PM2.5 and PM10 levels. As a result of this difference of measurement indicator, the US Embassy in Beijing released reports of dangerous levels of particle matter in the air, while Beijing air quality monitoring centres reported minimal levels. These discrepancies led to calls from the public for stricter air quality monitoring standards and greater transparency.

More Transparency?
Public pressure came to a head after many notable Chinese personalities took to social media websites advocating stricter air quality standards. Following this public campaign it was announced that Beijing’s air quality monitoring centre would be opened to the public. The government said that it had increased transparency in this area since they wanted to ‘allay the public’s fears.’ They hoped that the public’s doubts over the methods used would be reduced through public access to the monitoring centre.

According to Chinese media this is the first time in the centre’s history that it will be open to the general public. Since 1997, only a few private groups - such as schools and businesses - have been given access, for educational purposes. Access to the centre will be granted to forty citizens every Tuesday through a placement on one of two tours available only through pre-booking. While on the tour, participants will have the opportunity to not only see the centre, but also to observe how data is collected and analysed. Furthermore, they will have the opportunity ask experts questions on the entire process and on air quality in general. Some, however, have voiced their concerns over the fact that the centre will only be open one day a week (and during working hours) to a relatively small number of people.

Prior to opening the centre, air quality reports were listed online through the country’s Ministry of Environmental Protection website. These reports list the Air Pollution Index (API) score and the level of air pollution. 

China has taken further steps by declaring that they will be adopting stricter air quality monitoring standards. New standards include measuring air quality using the PM2.5 indicator in addition to its other measurements. Furthermore, the country will adopt the internationally recognised Air Quality Index (AQI) rather than its own API. The Chinese government announced that by 2016 these new standards will be in place nationwide, with implementation in some major cities occurring earlier. Chinese media has reported that Beijing already has the technology in place to use the PM2.5 indicator, but the data will not be released until the standards have been officially accepted.

A clearer future?
In major cities, emissions from automobiles are the main culprit for the high levels of fine particle matter in the air. With China experiencing a steep increase in numbers of cars on the road, these new air quality standards are a timely move. The public announcement of these stricter standards is a step towards a more transparent and effective monitoring system in the country. While China’s move to publicise PM2.5 readings has been heralded as responding to the demands of the public, it is in reality bowing to international pressure that highlighted its insufficient monitoring system. Nonetheless, these are improvements and should be seen as such.


Last changed: Feb 07 2012 at 5:51 PM