Is China Waking Up and Smelling Its Pollution?
My parents visited China last year and one thing stood out in nearly every photo: the murky-colored sky, often full of grayish clouds. I don’t think I saw the sun shining in a single picture from their almost two-week trip. My parents also noted that, due to it being warmer than expected — what with that constant haze — they’d had to make a few purchases of lighter clothing when visiting Beijing, Shanghai and other sites.
More than half of Chinese citizens think their government should make the environment a top priority. Chinese authorities are finally starting to wake up and smell the pollution.
Last Saturday, the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center said that it has completed a network of monitoring stations to “more accurately” assess air quality in China’s capital city of more than 19 million, says the Guardian. The monitors release real-time data about PM2.5, small particulates that may be given off from cars, trucks and power plants burning fuel and that can penetrate the lungs and cause respiratory illnesses.
Beijing authorities only began the monitoring at the instigation of Chinese citizens, who became aware of how polluted the city’s air is thanks to Americans. The US Embassy in Beijing has been (to China’s displeasure) measuring PM2.5 via a rooftop monitor on its compound and publishing the results via Twitter, via @BeijingAir.
Noting that the Chinese government has criticized the US for monitoring Beijing’s air quality and making the results public, US ambassador Gary Locke recently said at an event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC:
…we feel it’s a duty – our duty to inform our dependents and our Americans of the air conditions there so they can make appropriate decisions regarding the health of their children and themselves. We’re expanding this to all the different consulates throughout China.
US consulates in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu also measure and report on air quality; Locke said that the same monitoring will also be done at the US consulates in the cities of Shenyang and Wuhan.
Locke emphasized that it’s what can’t be seen, “the really invisible stuff” — particles like PM2.5 — that are especially dangerous to people’s health. Indeed, Locke compared the PM 2.5 exposure that residents of Beijing endure as almost “akin to being exposed to secondhand smoke constantly, or even smoking several packs a day.”
Currently, Beijing authorities use a particle larger than PM2.5 to measure air quality in the city. They plan to use the new monitors for a three-month trial and then formally switch to using PM2.5, which provides a more accurate gauge of air quality. Monitors have been installed in central Beijing and its suburbs, as well as near popular tourist sites including Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven and the Beijing botanical garden.
Certainly, air quality in Beijing does not sound too appealing, as the Guardian describes it:
White mist sat stubbornly among the capital’s skyscrapers on Sunday as people travelled [sic] home on the final day of an eight-day public holiday that had brought with it mostly blue skies as industry shut down.
China had requested that the US stop publishing the data in June, on the grounds that it “wasn’t fair to judge Chinese air by American standards because China is a developing country” and because US environmental guidelines have evolved to become far stricter. But isn’t the US doing China a favor, by urging it to discover how poor the air quality in Beijing is and how dangerous it is for Chinese citizens being subjected to the risk of respiratory diseases and coughing like smokers?
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