Over the last few days, it seems that the hottest topic to report on with respect to the Olympics is air quality, or lack there of, in Beijing. I even gave an interview on NPR last Friday on this very topic. Here, I want to reiterate / clarify / expand on a couple of points I made that were either shortened or edited from the interview.
First of all, I believe strongly that Beijing will meet its air quality targets for the Olympics. Why? Two reasons: first, the Beijing government will keep implementing stricter and stricter policies until they’ve achieved their desired results. (Actually, I think that one reason they started many of the bans on 7/20 was to give themselves enough time to go to Plan B if Plan A didn’t work). Second, I don’t think the Olympic air quality targets are really all that strict.
As far as I can tell, Beijing’s sole Olympic air quality goal / promise is for every day of the Games to be a Blue Sky Day, meaning that the API is less than 100. But Western media seems to be overlooking two key points about this goal. First, the API only considers three pollutants – NO2, SO2, and PM10. Noticeably absent from this list are the two pollutants that athletes seem most concerned about, ozone and PM2.5. Though Beijing monitors ozone and has a national standard, the daily concentrations are not reported publicly. PM2.5 is not even monitored.
Second, a Blue Sky Day in Beijing with an API of 100 could have a PM concentration of 150 ug/m^3. While China still considers this "good" (良) quality air, the US EPA would caution, "Unusually sensitive people should consider reducing prolonged or heavy exertion," calling this air "moderate."
Which leads me to wonder about the following potential scenario: throughout the Games, Beijing celebrates meeting its air quality goals, and yet the international community still complains loudly about the poor air quality. If this happens, who's at fault? Beijing for only meeting its domestic air quality targets instead of WHO targets, or the international community for not demanding more specific, more stringent air quality goals seven years ago?