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Another Winter Sweeps Through the Hutong

December 10, 2011

These photos, from the Beijing EPA, of air quality in an urban area of the Chaoyang district of Beijing demonstrate that while infrequent precipitation may temporarily wash away air pollution, the rate of emission is so high, that after a few days, visibility is again reduced to nil, and harmful particulate matter is back up rapidly. 

A Beijing road sign warns drivers about the "thick fog," the official way of referring to air pollution (CCTV)

December has arrived in Beijing, bringing with it the harsh Northern Chinese winter weather and the seasonal increase in particulate matter that results from coal combustion for higher heating needs. Users of Weibo, the Chinese twitter, have complained the presumable dishonesty in the Chinese government’s air pollution monitoring body, which has repeatedly reported acceptable/moderate air quality when eye-witnesses accounts disagree. Moreover, official agencies continue to refer to the pollution as fog or haze (雾). Anecdotally, I have seen many more locals wearing pollution masks, suggesting that awareness of the resulting respiratory problems has risen.

The Beijing air quality situation has long been complicated by the US Embassy’s monitoring of Beijing air quality and subsequent posting of the results on the twitter account, @beijingair. The chart below demonstrates the discrepancy between the US Embassy and the Beijing Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data. Notice a pattern?

A Beijinger checks the air quality on her phone. While the official Beijing station reports "slight" air pollution, the US Embassy reports "toxic" air pollution (Global Times)

Though blocked in China, many Chinese have means of accessing this data. In response, the Beijing EPA has lashed out at the US, requesting the Embassy refrain from publicly releasing this data, and suggesting to compare monitoring instrumentation (Chinese). The US Embassy measures particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers (1 μm=.000000 m) in size, PM2.5, and only from one point in the city. Assumably as a result of political concerns, the Beijing EPA does not currently release measurements of PM2.5, only the larger PM10, but Beijing EPA records measurements around the city (sometime very far from the polluted center of the city). Though recent announcements have committed to realeasing measurements of PM2.5, as well as other new environmental standards (most prominently, ozone), nationally by 2016, and earlier in key regions, the government has been unclear on the specifics. Both Beijing and Shanghai EPA have full capacity to measure and release this data, they only lack official permission.

The smaller particulate matter is more capable of penetrating through the lungs and damaging other internal organs such as the heart. While the Chinese government didn’t experience much difficulty reducing the larger PM10 by prohibiting primitive coal stoves in urban Beijing. PM2.5, on the other hand, arises from automobile emissions and other more advanced industrial practices, and has thus, proven to be more of a pickle.

I won’t comment further on the story as it has, admittedly, been over-reported in the foreign press, but I refer interested readers to Steven Andrews’s comprehensive report at China Dialogue, which gives a realistic appraisal of how Chinese air quality evaluation compares internationally.

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Drying Persimmons into disks (柿饼)

Drying persimmons into disks (柿饼)

As a result of the reality of living with constant environmental harm, references to the current environmental situation weave through conversations in Beijing unlike elsewhere. “It’s snowing” I said to my neighbor as I ran out for a bite of breakfast on the first day of snow, adopting the polite Chinese conversational technique of stating the remarkably obvious.

Jinghua kongqi” she replied, “it will purify the air.”

Later, as I returned with a breakfast snack, “so cold” I complained.

“You know, we have a phrase in Chinese,” she said, before laying down an old rhyming adage, similar to the English (American?) “apple a day.”

(Liu Jing for AFP)

多吃萝卜|[if you] eat more radish

多吃姜|eat more ginger

不用大夫|no need for the doctor

开处方|to fill out a prescription [for you]

Perhaps, that’s all we Beijing residents need to struggle through the winter, just a bit more radish and ginger, and just a bit more friendly neighbors.

UPDATE (8 Jan 2012): Beijing will release PM2.5 air quality evaluation by Spring Festival.

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