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In China’s Pollution Struggles, Information Is King

The air in Beijing has been a hot topic this past year. Beijing residents are generally quite stoic about local air pollution, and willing to turn a blind eye to differences between the grey air they see outside and the “blue sky days” the local government is reporting.

Last fall, however, the situation reached a breaking point. Beijing was hit with two waves of unusually severe pollution that grounded planes at China’s national airport. But the local government, instead of acknowledging the severity, claimed the city was only experiencing “minor” pollution.

Local people could see with their own eyes that was not the case. They could also see the data. The Beijing government’s statistics were only tracking air particles down to the 10 micron (micrometer) level. That left the more dangerous, smaller particles (2.5 microns in diameter and below) out of their statistics. In this case, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing was providing its own air quality reports that included the more dangerous PM 2.5 particles. Beijing residents compared the two reports, declared the local government reports invalid, and demanded a new monitoring system.

Those demands seem to be working. The Chinese government began issuing PM 2.5 reports for Beijing in January, and now Beijing officials are planning to switch all local power plants from coal to natural gas over the next four years to meet higher air quality standards based on more stringent PM 2.5 readings. There are similar monitoring and improvement plans for other areas across China.

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This recent Beijing air pollution debacle is a fascinating case because it shows how critical technical information is in the battle against industrial pollution.

People generally want clean air and water, but they want a strong national economy and a good paycheck, too. In developing countries, in particular, people often have to decide how they want their government to strike a balance between enforcing pollution standards and allowing dirty facilities to drive industrial activity. The more local people know about how those factories and power plants are damaging the health of their families, the more they will push for better standards. That is why governments sometimes hide that information: The less people know, the more government can let businesses get away with.

The Chinese government is now telling the U.S. embassy to bstop providing independent pollution information to the Chinese public. Last month, Wu Xiaoqing, Vice-Minister for Environment, said at a press conference that “some foreign embassies and consulates in China are monitoring air quality and publishing the results themselves” and those activities are “not in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and Vienna Convention on Consular Relations” and the embassies should desist and leave environmental reporting to the Chinese government.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin delivered a similar message the following day when he said that “foreign embassies and consulates in China don’t have the legal authority to monitor China’s environment or release relevant data, nor do they have the professional capabilities or conditions to do so…we hope relevant foreign embassies and consulates will comply with universally recognized international conventions as well as Chinese laws and stop such irresponsible actions.”

When it comes to political battles over pollution, information is key. Suspecting that the environment is unhealthy is one thing, but having the hard data is another. And the harder the data, the harder Chinese citizens are going to push their leaders.

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When it comes to air pollution, it turns out that one small monitoring device sitting atop the U.S. embassy and broadcasting its findings to the internet is all the citizens of Beijing needed to press their government for change. Now the government wants to take that device away.

That raises the question of what Chinese citizens will do if foreign government monitoring reports are outlawed. They may do just fine, because individual Chinese citizens and NGOs across the country are already stepping up to do the exact same things themselves.

Friends of Nature, one of China’s oldest environmental NGOs, is monitoring PM 2.5 levels in Henan Province and publishing the data online, and other NGOs are running similar programs across the country. And these programs are not limited to air. Green Beagle Environment Institute has been tracking pollution in Beijing’s Qing River for half a year and publishing some of those results online. The Mochou Environmental Association, another Chinese NGO, is doing similar water monitoring in Nanjing. That NGO tested and recorded the water quality of nearby Mochou Lake for four consecutive years and used that evidence to push the local government to launch a water quality management program.

These citizen-led monitoring efforts still face many hurdles. Most Chinese NGOs are short on financial resources, which can hinder their ability to buy expensive monitoring equipment and hire knowledgeable personnel. However, those efforts are empowering their friends and neighbors to push for change.

From a U.S. perspective, it is always easy to point fingers at China’s environmental record. What we should not forget is that there are real people in China, struggling to improve their environment just as we did here decades ago, data point by data point. We should do everything we can to assist their efforts.

Melanie Hart is a Policy Analyst for Chinese Energy and Climate Policy at the Center for American Progress; Jing Shen is an intern on the international policy team at the Center for American Progress.