by Melanie Hart and Tong Zhao
Many eyes are on the international climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa this week — particularly on China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter.
The international community is upping the pressure on China to take serious steps to reduce emissions. China’s biggest climate pressures, however, are coming from within.
As living standards go up, Chinese citizens are paying more attention to quality-of-life issues, particularly air quality. They are pressuring their government to reduce air pollution — much as U.S. citizens pushed for the Clean Air Act — and that pressure is giving the Chinese leadership new incentives to adopt tighter air pollution standards and to take on more ambitious emissions reduction programs.
Air quality has been a hot topic in China for years, but the U.S. Embassy in Beijing added to the debate by offering an alternative source of information about local air pollution and the potential impacts on citizen health. In 2008 the U.S. embassy installed a roof-top air quality monitoring system that samples the Beijing air every hour. The embassy provides a mobile app that anyone can register for to receive the hourly readings, which define the conditions as “fine,” “terrible” or “hazardous” depending on the amount of pollution particles in the air.
These reports have created a major controversy in China, because the U.S. embassy bases their assessments on EPA standards that measure particulate air pollution down to the smaller (2.5 microns in diameter and below) particles. China’s standards, in contrast, only measure and report particles down to the 10 micron (micrometer) level. That is a critical oversight, because PM 2.5 particles are among the most dangerous. Due to their small size, they can penetrate deeper into the lungs and cause more severe health damage.
If Chinese officials include PM 2.5 particles in their environmental reports without also tightening up regulatory standards to control those particles, that would lower the country’s environmental assessment ratings and create new pressures that many Chinese officials are not yet ready to deal with. This is a particular concern for China’s local government officials, who need good reports to pass up to their superiors, and who sometimes struggle to accurately measure local pollution emissions.
Chinese leaders are working to shift their economy toward cleaner and more efficient energy sources, but those upgrades are costly, and Chinese citizens and enterprises have limited ability to absorb higher utility bills. The government is stepping in to subsidize many of these upgrades, but the improvements still take time. In the interim, Chinese officials prefer to tailor their monitoring standards to their ability to actually regulate and enforce them. As long as they think controlling PM 2.5 particles is too difficult and costly, they prefer to keep those measurements out of their official assessment reports.
Some Chinese officials, therefore, were not too happy with the U.S. embassy’s mobile air pollution service, and they reportedly asked the embassy to shut it down (to no avail). But local citizens — many of whom have long distrusted the government’s air quality readings — have been signing up in droves.
This fall, Beijing is suffering repeated bouts of extremely severe air pollution. For multiple days running, the U.S. embassy monitoring station has registered air in the “hazardous” category, which according to the U.S. EPA is an “emergency condition” that could impact the entire population, not just sensitive groups. China’s official government reports, in contrast, have called the same conditions “level-3 minor pollution” (where level-1 is the most severe).
That discrepancy — and the severity of the health warnings from the U.S. embassy — have triggered serious public concern in China and a new round of debates about government transparency and the reliability of the government’s monitoring data.
At first, Chinese environmental officials and state media pushed back, claiming that their PM 10 standards were more scientific. Chinese citizens, however, did not back down. The air quality issue became a hot topic in the Chinese media and on online discussion forums, and the government has begun to realize that they will lose credibility if they do not address citizen concerns.
China’s Environmental Protection Ministry has responded by issuing the country’s first PM 2.5 air pollution standard, and they are also talking about heightening the existing PM 10 standard and adopting new measurements for carbon monoxide and ozone. Local officials are also setting up a new PM 2.5 monitoring station near Beijing.
There are two key takeaways here. First, Chinese citizens are pushing hard for cleaner air, and although they do not elect their leaders, they have more political influence than many foreign observers realize. China’s domestic environmental advocates are a strong ally for the international climate community, and we should not overlook them. Anything we can do to improve their access to accurate pollution information (as the U.S. embassy did with their air monitoring program) or increase their involvement in international climate discussions would be a good thing.
Second, this domestic pressure is pushing the Chinese government toward stricter air pollution standards and greenhouse gas emissions reductions domestically, and that will likely increase China’s willingness to accept more serious commitments at the international level.
These changes will certainly take time, and in the interim, the international community should keep pressuring China to do more.
However, we should not forget that when it comes to Chinese emissions, it is not the international community who has the most to lose. It is the Chinese citizens themselves. And when it comes to reducing the country’s emissions, they are a critical driving force that we should not overlook.
Melanie Hart is the China Energy and Climate Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress; Tong Zhao is an Intern on the energy team at the Center for American Progress.