China And Pollution: Officials Won't Dare Air Data On Rising Smog Levels

Analysis: A very public U.S. air pollution monitor has become central in the debate over Beijing's air quality. But China is so far from facing its environmental crisis that it doesn't even use the latest standard means for measuring smo

Pollution over Tiananmen Square in Beijing (mckaysavage)
Pollution over Tiananmen Square in Beijing (mckaysavage)
Yu Huapeng

BEIJING - The Americans are stirring up trouble again. The air quality apparatus they installed at their Embassy before the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games is showing alarming measurements of Beijing's air quality. And what is worse is that they are publishing the figures every hour on their website.

This past Sunday for example, the Embassy of the United States posted a hazardous high in the PM2.5 index – 522 micrograms of particles per cubic meter.

Perhaps a little explanation will help. PM2.5 refers to the size of the particles - the really tiny ones that are below 2.5 micrometers in diameter. They lodge in your lungs and provoke nasty diseases. Some even get into your bloodstream. The 522 micrograms per cubic meter is, well, a lot: compare it to the European Union's maximum ratio of 50.

All this has stirred up a lot of debate between Beijing's residents and the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau. Since the autumn, there has been frequent smoggy days, not only in the capital, but also in China's central and northern provinces. The visibility in certain areas is less than 500 meters, and people face heavy coughs in spite of wearing masks everywhere they go.

But the Environmental Bureau keeps on insisting that the air is just "slightly polluted". There is no PM2.5 measurement. The smog is caused by "fog," they say, not "haze."

Fog and haze are indeed two different things. Fog is a weather phenomenon, and does not bring pollution itself. Haze is caused by the accumulated pollutant particles in the air, which happily combine with fog to make smog.

Not dust from Mongolia

Our question, then, for the Chinese authorities: we know our air quality is in constant decline because of rapid economic development, so why don't you have the courage to enforce the limitations on PM2.5?

To this day, China is still using the "ambient air quality standards' modified in 1996 as its enforcement tool for air quality. In this regulation, the mandatory monitoring air particles is set for larger particles, PM10.

A typical PM10 pollution is a dust storm gusting in from Mongolia, full of loose dirt and sand. Humans can deal with this stuff fairly well. China's manufacturing boom has drastically changed the nature of the pollutant and shifted the threat from PM10 to PM2.5.

China's PM2.5 pollution mainly comes from coal-fired power generation, the cement industry and automobile exhaust emissions. With the spread of car use in Chinese cities, a sharp increase in electricity consumption, as well as urban expansion across China, the PM2.5 indicator is bound to deteriorate.

China already possesses the automatic monitoring technology to check for PM2.5. But it would be disastrous for the relevant governmental departments to reveal the horrific data and indicators concerning a pollution they cannot control. Ultimately, this is the very reason why China is not using this up-to-date measuring tool.

Meanwhile, what can we citizens do? Wait, just wait. We just have to hope that if we wait long enough, we'll be able to smile under a blue sky. Or we could also convince ourselves that it's just the Americans stirring up trouble again.

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - mckaysavage

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Feed The Future

COP26 Should Mark A Turning Point In Solving The Climate Crisis

Slow Food calls for an action plan to significantly reduce and improve the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs by 2050.

A new dawn?

If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, the same also goes for the animals that end up on our plate. How we feed our own food can have knock-on effects, not just for our own health but also for the planet. We are now aware of the meat and dairy industry's significant carbon footprint, responsible for more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Large-scale cattle productions that favor pure profit over more sustainable practices also add to environmental woes through biodiversity loss, deforestation and pesticide use — with some of the world's richest countries contributing disproportionately: The five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the oil giant Exxon.

The good news is that we could meet — if we would — some of these challenges with an array of innovative solutions, as the fields of farming, breeding and nutrition look at ways to shift from centralized intensive agro industry toward a more localized, smaller-scale and more organic approach to production.

Cows fed corn and grain-based diets may grow larger and are ready to be processed at a younger age — but this requires significant energy, as well as land and water resources; in contrast, grass and hay-fed cows support a regenerative farming model in which grazing can contribute to restoring the health of soil through increased microbial diversity. Compared to highly processed GM crops, natural-grass diets with minimal cereals also lead to more nutrient-rich livestock, producing better quality meat, milk and cheese. Farmers have started focusing on breeding native animal species that are best adapted to local environmental contexts.

This new approach to agricultural practices is closely linked to the concept of agroecology, where farming works in tandem with the environment instead of exploiting it. If mowed a few times a year, for instance, natural meadows produce hay that is rich in grasses, legumes and flowers of the sunflower family, like daisies, dandelions, thistles and cornflowers. These biomes become reservoirs of biodiversity for our countryside, hosting countless species of vegetables, insects and birds, many of which are at risk of extinction. Until recently, these were common habitats in meadows that were not plugged or tilled and only required light fertilization. Today, however, they are becoming increasingly threatened: in the plains, where the terrain is used for monocultures like corn; or in hills and mountains, where fields are facing gradual abandonment.

It is worth noting that extensive agriculture, which requires smaller amounts of capital and labor in relation to the size of farmed land, can actually help curb climate change effects through carbon dioxide absorption. Researchers at the University of California, Davis determined that in their state, grasslands and rangelands have actually acted as more resilient carbon sinks than forests in recent years. Through a system of carbon uptake, these lands provide a form of natural compensation, going as far as canceling the farms' impact on the planet, rendering them carbon "creditors."

In the meantime, grasslands and pastures allow animals to live in accordance with their natural behavioral needs, spending most of the year outside being raised by bonafide farmers who care about animal welfare. A recent study by Nature found that allowing cows to graze out of doors has both psychological and physical health benefits, as they seem to enjoy the open space and ability to lie on the soft ground.

Some might worry about the economic losses that come with this slower and smaller business model, but there are also opportunities for creativity in diversifying activities, like agro-tourism and direct sales that can actually increase a farm's profit margin. This form of sustainable production goes hand-in-hand with the Slow Meat campaign, which encourages people to reduce their meat consumption while buying better quality, sustainable meat.

Others may assume that the only environmentally-conscious diet is entirely plant-based. That is indeed a valuable and viable option, but there are also thoughtful ways to consume meat in moderation — and more sustainably. It also should be noted that many fruits and vegetables have surprisingly large carbon footprints: The industrial-scale cultivation of avocados, for example, requires massive amounts of water and causes great hardship to farming communities in Latin America.

But forging a broad shift toward more "biodiversity-friendly" pastoralism requires action by both those producing and eating meat, and those with the legislative power to enact industry-wide change. It is urgent that policies be put into place to support a return to long-established agricultural practices that can sustainably feed future generations. Although no country in the world today has a defined strategy to decrease consumption while transforming production, governments are bound to play a key role in the green transition, present and future.

In Europe, Slow Food recommends that the Fit for 55 package include reducing emissions from agriculture activities by 65% (based on 2005 levels) by 2050. Agriculture-related land use emissions should also reach net-zero by 2040 and become a sink of -150 Mt CO2eq by 2050. But these targets can only be met if the EU farming sector adopts agroecological practices at a regional scale, and if consumers shift to more sustainable diets. If we are indeed what we eat, we should also care deeply about how the choices we make impact the planet that feeds us.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!