Beijing's Olympic Pollution Solution: Luck + Data Manipulation


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At last summer's Olympics, Beijing came out on top in the medal count and on the balance sheets. But as the city's air pollution again pushes dangerous levels, two new reports point out that pollution during the Games was concealed by poor measurements and mitigated more by weather than by the government's massive interventions.

While pollution levels appeared to reach record lows for Beijing, the Olympic air was actually 3.5 times worse than that of recent Olympic cities like Athens, Atlanta and Sydney, and often exceeded what the World Health Organization considers safe.One report, by Steve Andrews and published by the Wilson Center, reiterates conclusions that Andrews made and we reported last year: that China is misinforming the public by massaging its pollution numbers to look lower than they are and not including crucial, finer pollutants in its calculations, PM 2.5 and ozone.

Beijing and other Chinese cities rely on an air pollution index (API) in which a score of 100 or lower indicates air quality as 'good.' By that measurement, all 17 days of Olympic events in Beijing were deemed satisfactory, or "blue sky" days. Overall, the city counted a record high of 274 good air days in 2008.

Nevertheless, during the Olympics, as another study by researchers from Oregon State University and Peking University found, coarser particulate matter, PM 10 (particles with a diameter of 10 micrometers or less, or one-seventh the width of a human hair), exceeded levels that the WHO considers safe about 81 percent of the time.

Meanwhile, fine particle pollution (PM 2.5) exceeded WHO guidelines 100 percent of the time.

Beijing's Olympic pollution exceeded an average day in Los Angeles by two to four times, and was higher than pollution levels during previous Olympics in Athens, Atlanta, and Sydney.

The American-Chinese study also determined that China's drastic air clean-up, part of a $20 billion "greening" effort that included banning half the city's 3.3 million vehicles, halting most construction and closing dozens of factories, had less of an effect on pollution than did weather during August.

Meteorological conditions, such as rainfall and strong winds from the north and northwest, accounted for 40% of the variation in concentrations of PM 10, while pollution control measures accounted for only 16 percent, according to the study.

But meterological conditions were not simply an act of god (this is, after all, officially a secular country). No doubt recognizing the importance of the weather in clearing the air, Beijing officials even called in the cloud-seeding guns to force rain on some days.

Moving the Goal Posts
Andrews study indicates that the use of API and "Blue Sky" day measurements has kept the pressure on officials across China to push data from just above the 100 mark to just under. Thus, a polluted day becomes a "blue sky" day.

Andrews also caught Beijing moving its air sampling stations to less-trafficked areas to create the appearance of less pollution.

The report also points out that cities managed to make the grade because standards for NO2 were loosened in 2000. Though Beijing and Guangzhou made the grade in 2006, if 1996 standards had been used, they would have exceeded the annual average NO2 standard by 65 percent and 67 percent, respectively.

The Good News
It's tempting to see China's Olympic pollution efforts as further confirmation of Beijing's tendency to cover up the facts.

But if there is silver lining of China's massive Olympic pollution experiment, it's the way it has drawn more attention than ever to the country's toxic air, and demonstrated that even drastic temporary measures can't compensate for long-term, sustainable improvements in pollution monitoring and reduction.

Earlier this month, environmental officials indicated that ozone and PM 2.5 would be incorporated into an updated monitoring regime next year, state media reported. From Jian Wang, an official with the environment ministry's pollution-prevention division, we have this breath of fresh air:

"PM2.5 is to blame for the haze," said Wang. "Vehicle exhausts that contain black carbon, sulfates and nitrates contribute a lot to the density of PM2.5, which is more damaging to the respiratory system than PM10."

Ozone at the ground level, which is formed when hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides (NOx) combine in the presence of sunlight, causes photochemical smog and also harms people's health.

Already, several major cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, are monitoring PM 2.5, said a researcher surnamed Li from the China National Environmental Monitoring Center.

Through the Smog, Transparency
Meanwhile, efforts to improve information and transparency -- the fundamental weapons in the fight against pollution -- are being abetted by a new independent index that measures how well Chinese cities disclose environmental information.

The PITI, established by the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) and the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), has gathered data for 113 cities. Only four cities scored over 60 (out of a possible 100): Ningbo of Zhejiang province, Hefei of Anhui province, Fuzhou of Fujian province and Wuhan of Hubei province. The average score was 30. Beijing overall scored 49.1 out of 100.

The general trend, reports China Daily, is that eastern Chinese cities performed better on environmental information publication than cities in central China, while central cities performed better than cities in western China.

In fighting pollution, this is precisely what China needs more (and the U.S. climate negotiators agree): before lowering pollution, arming scientists, non-governmental organizations and citizens with information on how much there is and where its coming from. The information is not hard to gather, but it needs to get more sunlight.

Better measurement drives us to get greener in our cars and houses. It applies to countries too.

(I also wrote about Beijing's pollution statistics alchemy at The New Republic and for a recent book, China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance.)

More on Beijing's Pollution at TreeHugger
Beijing Meets Its "Blue Sky" Target for 2008 (After Moving the Goal Posts)
Is the IOC Helping Beijing Obscure Its Pollution?
Its Air Experiment Failing, Beijing Considers "Emergency" Plan
Pollution in China is Worse Than Ever, Citizens Say
"Ni Hao, I've Got This Huge F--ing Factory Splling Chemicals Into My River, Could You Send Someone Over?"
Planet Green: Pollution

Tags: Beijing | China | Olympics | Pollution

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