Beijing Meets Its "Blue Sky" Target for 2008 (After Moving the Goal Posts)


Andrew Lih

China has a big counterfeiting problem, but it's not DVDs or clothing or cars. It's pollution statistics. We've mentioned it before, and wrote about it recently at The Vine, but as the UN worries about giant smog clouds over Asia and Beijing considers lowering fuel prices, it's worth mentioning again: Beijing's claims to have lowered air pollution are fraught by suspicious numbers.

Today we learn that, as of Nov 30, the city had reached its "blue sky" target for 2008. Beijing has been looking better than usual this autumn, a result no doubt of the Olympic Games clean-up and restrictions on cars. Ten years ago, the city only had 100 "blue sky" days -- days not when the sky is necessarily blue, but when the Air Pollution Index was 100 or lower. Said Du Shaozhong, deputy director of the Beijing municipal environmental protection bureau, "Counting 'blue-sky' days is a tense job, for we are always nervous whether we'll be able to achieve the target."

Not to detract from the improvements (and trust me, my lungs appreciate them), nor to interrupt the official back-patting already underway, but Mr. Du failed to mention two crucial secret weapons in Beijing's war on smog.

Where's the Goal?

First, at some point, Beijing changed its "blue sky" target to 256 from 292, the number it promised repeatedly for this its Olympic year.

But moving those goal posts may be minor compared with the bigger move: the city has relocated its air monitoring stations in recent years to create the impression of cleaner skies.

First: What's a "Blue Sky"

A "blue sky" day occurs when the government's Air Pollution Index (API) hits 100 or below. The API is based on an average of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and fine dust readings at 27 monitoring stations (ozone data is not released). Over the past few years, the number of blue sky days has been rising, usually just in line with government targets.

Even for those of us with an unlikely and perhaps unhealthy measure of optimism about China's environmental situation, it wasn't hard to be suspicious of Beijing's pollution progress in the years leading up to the Games. In 2007, the Beijing government barely managed to meet its "Blue Sky" day target of 246 due to an abundance of days when the API reading was exactly 100. Setting aside the question of whether these days could even be considered healthy, more than a few people simply wondered if some pollution readings weren't shaved off the top to meet the official goal.


New York Times
Number Fudging

But last year, Steve Andrews, a Princeton in Asia fellow who was working for the NRDC in Beijing at the time, got suspicious about Beijing's ever rosier picture and did some digging. A paper he published in the October issue of Environmental Research Letters (full article in pdf here) concludes that Beijing's claims to air quality improvement over the past decade may be more a matter of hot air than blue skies.

Thanks to an alchemy of the records, writes Andrews, not only did a majority of "Blue Sky" days last year fall exactly -- and suspiciously -- on or under the 100 mark: Beijing has also in recent years moved its air sampling stations to areas with less traffic and industry to create the appearance of less pollution.

His research, compiled from public data and first published last year in the Wall Street Journal, showed that if the same monitoring station locations used in Beijing from 1998 to 2005 continued to be used in 2006, 38 of that year's 'Blue Sky' days would have exceeded the "Blue Sky" standard. He went on to pick apart Beijing's claim that pollution levels had dropped between 1998 and 2007, concluding that

reported improvements in air quality for 2006–2007 over 2002 levels can be attributed to (a) a shift in reported daily PM10 concentrations from just above to just below the national standard, and (b) a shift of monitoring stations in 2006 to less polluted areas.

Dangers and Denials

Keeping up appearances counts for a lot in China, but rarely do they conceal such a huge health crisis: in China's 14 largest cities alone, air pollution is responsible for the deaths of 50,000 newborns each year, writes the Shanghai Star newspaper. That's not to mention the impact of pollution on millions more. (Detailed surveys are often kept under wraps for obvious reasons, such as the World Bank's 2007 report of 750,000 premature deaths per year due to pollution.)

Earlier this year I asked Du Shaozhang, the environmental official who recently announced Beijing's "blue sky" achievement, why the city had moved its monitoring stations. His response was a mix of denial ("This phenomenon does not exist, because this is a misunderstanding.") and promises of "improvements" to the monitoring network. Numbers were not being fudged, he insisted, but he did concede that "we need to enhance observation and enforcement and supervision" of the air-quality data.

Though Andrews' study focused only on Beijing, it raises important questions about pollution data for other large Chinese cities where the "blue sky" standard is also used to report pollution data to the public.

It's no surprise why these statistics are so controversial: the public they are meant to serve is increasingly hungry for information, and increasingly good at mobilizing to protest things it doesn't like.

And So...

Chinese government statistics should always be taken with a hefty grain of MSG. But these may be different. These statistics were not only used to substantiate Beijing's claims that its air had improved since being awarded the Olympic Games, but are theoretically used by citizens to determine how safe it is to venture outdoors.

It could be argued that the number fudging is so minor that it would not seriously affect someone's decision to, say, go outside. After all, it would be hard to fake a "blue sky" day when the air is gray and soupy. But if the number of blue sky days is up even when it's not, that could conceal ugly statistics about invisible pollutants like ozone (which isn't counted anyway). And faking "blue skies" will take the pressure off those officials tasked with making crucial energy and environmental decisions.

One recent decision: Beijing's promises to restrict car registrations has been revoked. The auto industry is just too important apparently. And hey, the skies are already getting "bluer." Just look at the numbers.

China Daily via The Beijinger

For Beijing's official air pollution data, see BJ Environmental Protection Bureau and the Ministry of Environmental Protection)

Also on Treehugger:

Beijing Anti-Pollution Efforts
Beijing Bans One Million Cars, Sharply Raises Gas Prices
Post-Olympics Beijing to Traffic: "Welcome Back!"
Beijing to Force 800,000 Cars Off the Roads Daily
Transparency and Statistics
Is the IOC Helping Beijing Obscure Its Pollution?
China Celebrates Status As No. 1 Polluter

Tags: Beijing | China | Pollution