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
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