How Beijing Cleans Its Air, and Fakes It Too

As savvy moves by officials in China are pushing its state-run English-language news outlets to start sounding a bit more like their Western counterparts, did a New York Times article over the weekend about improvements to air quality in Beijing bear echoes of state-run media?

The good news, fortunately, is mostly true. The pressure of being an Olympics host has brought definite improvements by the government, like moving factories and ratcheting up emissions standards -- efforts that, the Times notes, "some environmentalists in developed nations, pitted against industry lobbyists and balky political machinery, can only envy." (Also possibly at work is the country's economic slowdown, which has helped bring nationwide pollutant emissions down temporarily.)

But even amidst advances, there can be an especially big difference in Beijing between between what seems and what is, between the measurement of one particulate and a survey of the entire sky.The problem is that the Times' main source of data -- and the only extensive source available -- is the government itself. As we noted before, Beijing has been caught fudging numbers, moving monitoring stations and shutting down factories just to get good statistics.

The article reports the Beijing government's litany of improvements since the city won the Olympics in 2001, an impressive arsenal of smog-cutting tools by any standard:


  • The conversion of 60,000 boilers and commercial heaters to run on clean natural gas instead of coal, and a transition from coal to electric heaters among low-income residents

  • Addition of pollution scrubbers to the city's four coal-fired power plants

  • The relocation of heavily polluting factories away from the city, including a a coking coal plant and soon, the Shougang steel mill, one of the city's biggest employers

  • A raise in emissions standards for new cars from nothing in 1999 to Euro IV today

  • An effort to push high emitting vehicles from the city center, while phasing them out. In fact, contra the Times piece, the country proposed a "cash for clunkers" program well before Obama, and implemented it in July

  • More than 4,100 of the 20,000 city buses run on clean-burning compressed or liquefied natural gas -- the largest such fleet in the world

  • A traffic reduction effort that keeps a fifth of cars off the roads every day, based on the last digit of license plate numbers.

Even if factory closures and emissions improvements have offset the pollution from the torrent of new cars, as officials insist, that's little solace for a city where rush hour is often more like eight hours. One worrisome statistic not mentioned in the Times piece: around 1,200 new cars on the roads of Beijing every day.

Though many newly affluent Chinese can't wait to get behind the wheel (with encouragement, to be sure, from the state-owned auto industry), the city's traffic may be helping to make the city's public transit more attractive than ever. And just in time -- Beijing's building out its subway system at lightning speed, with track length set to triple in five years. Bus rapid transit (BRT) lines are growing too.

But the city will likely need even more measures to slow the growth in cars. And just as importantly, it will need to keep improving how it collects data, and what kind of pollution it measures. That doesn't sound sexy, but true management begins with honest measurement.

The Times notes that "through September, the government counted 221 days in which the 0-to-500 pollution index -- the lower the number, the better -- was below 101. It was the greatest number of 'blue-sky days,' as the city calls them, since daily measurements were first published in 1998." Beijing has also recorded only 2 days with dangerously high air pollution this year, the lowest number in a decade, and 17 days fewer than were logged over the same period in 2000.

In Smog Count, It's Beijing Vs. U.S.
He may not need to, but the Times doesn't mention that the government is infamous for playing fast and loose with these numbers in particular. Suspicions were confirmed last year by researcher Steven Andrews, who showed that in the run-up to the Olympics, the city had moved pollution sampling stations to areas outside the city, and that a preponderance of "blue sky days" were the result of pushing numbers just under the 101 mark.

Recently, Live From Beijing came across another anomaly in the Olympic statistics: two very different official sets of data for the same day: the original number, 23, and another number, 84.

Amidst perplexities like these, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing set up its own pollution monitor this year, a move that stirred minor controversy. It's only one sampling station next to the city's dozens. But while the city only releases a monolithic pollution statistic the next day, the embassy's numbers are released every hour, available on Twitter. The numbers are consistently worse than those reported by Beijing. If you live in China however, Twitter is now blocked by the Great Firewall.

When it announced cleaner skies this summer, the city's Environmental Protection Bureau continued to dismiss the notion that it had manipulated the metrics. Instead, the head of the pollution monitoring center said Beijing had relied on another kind of Potemkin pollution solution: whenever average pollution was hovering near the limit for a "blue sky day," the city ordered factories to shut down temporarily. It's a policy that may have been replicated in other large cities, too.

But even such temporary, unsustainable measures may not have helped Beijing nearly as much as luck. The weather in August 2008 accounted for 40 percent of pollution reduction during the Olympics, said a recent study conducted by Chinese and American universities.

Not Just More Accurate, But Better Data Needed
Even assuming that the data is largely correct, the city's pollution measurements still do not include crucial, finer pollutants in its calculations -- finer PM 2.5 particles and ozone. Per U.S. EPA standards, the American embassy's readings offer both statistics. Beijing says it doesn't yet have a pollution standard for such pollutants, but it's working on it.

The current API and "blue sky day" standards leave much to be desired. "Blue skies" don't always translate to skies that are colored blue. Likewise, a sky colored blue could be full of those finer particles. (To see what I mean, take a look at the month of September for instance at the Asia Society's Beijing Air page.). Even a "satisfactory" API of 100 -- technically a "blue sky" -- is much higher than the ideal standard recommended by the World Health Organization.

Missing the Air for the Numbers?
If Beijing has cut pollution, as its continued economic growth and transition away from industrial production suggests it would, it may have been the result of an impressive array of policy tools, alongside an economic slowdown. But a general murkiness still lingers over the data. And closing factories just to bring numbers within still barely acceptable limits is hardly a sustainable solution to pollution.

Without stronger standards, more transparent metrics and more sustainable approaches to fighting pollution, Beijing will be stuck chasing numbers, not fighting smog.

And even if Beijing continues to make improvements, skepticism over the data could mar that progress. For a country increasingly keen on burnishing its reputation, that's not a very sustainable approach. For now, the city's numbers are like its air pollution: even when the sky's blue you could be breathing in a toxic brew.

See the skies and the data for yourself at the Asia Society's Beijing Air page, at the Ministry of Environmental Protection's dataset page (Chinese) and at the U.S. Embassy's Beijingair Twitter.

UPDATE: check out James Fallows' somewhat sensationally headlined piece in the Atlantic, "How I Survived China."

Tags: Air Pollution | Beijing | China