Sunday, August 24, 2008

end of the games

First of all, apologies for the lack of posting this week; I've been busy watching as many events as I can while simultaneously struggling through a wicked cold. With the end of the Games finally upon us, though, I thought I'd fire off some quick numbers on how Beijing did:

First of all, Beijing met its goal of keeping the API below 100 during the Games. Here is the data for the 17 days 8/8/08-8/24/08:

Second, it seems the temporary policies (+ regular rains throughout the Games) worked; let's take a look at some average numbers for comparison:

Average Beijing API during the Olympics, 8/8/08-8/24/08: 49
Average Beijing API since the car ban went into effect, 7/20/08-8/24/08: 64
2007 Yearly Average Beijing API: 101
Average Beijing API during Olympic period 2007, 8/8/07-8/24/07: 86
Average Beijing API during Olympic period 2006, 8/8/06-8/24/06: 76

The average API in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics was 43% lower than the average API in Beijing during the same period in 2007. I'd say that's a pretty dramatic improvement.

More analysis to come.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

beautiful in beijing

Yesterday was one of the most beautiful days I've ever seen in Beijing. And the data supports it: the API of 17 yesterday is tied for the lowest on record (going back to June, 2000). Here's the data since the car ban started on 7/20:

As of 8/13, the New York Times was already quoting athletes calling Beijing's pollution concerns "massive hype," and proposing, "it may seem that the great air pollution scare is becoming the equivalent of the Y2K computer scare — a nonevent."

While I appreciate the optimism, I'm not quite willing to go that far at this point; I am still tracking the data carefully and will reserve any sweeping "success" judgments until the end of the Games.

Still, though, I suppose if Beijing can survive the opening ceremony with an API of 94 and the two long distance cycling events at 78 and 82, then the odds are pretty good that we aren't going to see any other dramatically different impressions of the air quality than what we have seen already.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

the rift on air quality during the Games

Regarding everyone's favorite Olympic environmental topic, air pollution, it seems like we've reached the stalemate I wondered about at the end of my very first post on this blog. Depending on who you ask, China should either be congratulated for meeting its air quality goals or chastised for allowing athletes to compete in such horrible pollution.

On the one hand, the constant refrain from both the IOC and the Chinese media is that the air poses no risk to the athletes. From Reuters:
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had warned it might reschedule events if the air quality posed a threat, but on Sunday it said there were no problems.

"The readings that we were looking at indicated that we have no cause for concern at this stage," said IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davis.
On the other hand, we are still seeing many reports with detailed descriptions of how bad it is here. From The Oregonian:
Last weekend, when days were hot, humid and still, the smoggy haze hung thick as a wool blanket. In her blog, [distance runner Kara] Goucher wrote:

"I have to say that the pollution and smog in Beijing is much, much worse than I imagined. It's a bit eerie how the sun never comes out all day. If you are walking around the village and you look ahead, you can't see all of the buildings. The pollution creates a fog that clouds over everything. It is unimaginable. I am shocked by how bad it is."
CNN summarizes, "Despite official assurances that the air is safe for competition, athletes and fans have expressed concern over the thick smog covering the entire city."

However, not everyone is convinced that the air is all that bad. From the New York Times blog:
A handful of track and field athletes worked out on a rainy Sunday morning at the United States Olympic compound at Beijing Normal University, and most said they had not been bothered by the air quality in Beijing. They were adjusting to the humidity, but the pollution, they said, had not been an issue.
This rift - between those who find Beijing's air quality acceptable and those who find it intolerable - that has opened up over the past few weeks is fascinating to me. Perhaps most interesting is that fact that the debate seems to be playing out on so many levels: technical, medical, psychological, political, and more. (I hope to blog in more detail on this topic later.)

In any case, no matter which side you take, at least we finally have some idea of what the air quality is going to be like during the Games. Since 8/8, the API has been up and down. And yet, with the API not "down" enough to make all the foreigners happy and not "up" enough to exceed the Chinese cut-off of 100, the result? Stalemate.

Friday, August 8, 2008


Today is a day to forget about graphs and data and simply to enjoy the spirit, the hope, the optimism, the unity of the Olympics.

I just changed my cell phone ring tone to the Olympic theme music. Needless to say, I am really excited. It is a great day to be here in Beijing!

One World, One Dream!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

last day before the Games - API at 95

Today's API of 95 is not an encouraging last data point before the Games start tomorrow. I was just up at the Olympic Green and the air there is what my friend describes as "mashed potato air." Beijing API data since the car ban went into effect shown here:

No word yet on whether or not MEP will implement emergency pollution reduction measures. On the contrary, in some respects China doesn't seem all that worried, as evidenced by this article from Xinhua: "IOC: Beijing delivers on environmental promises."

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

los angeles 1984 olympic air quality

This is the second in a series of posts comparing Beijing's air quality to that of other Olympic host cities. Here, I explore the air quality of Los Angeles during the 1984 Games.

Summary: Lack of available data makes directly comparing the air quality during the Los Angeles Olympics to that of Beijing challenging. The only air quality data I could find for Los Angeles in 1984 are concentrations of ozone and Total Suspended Particles (TSP). Unfortunately, PM10 measurements did not begin in Los Angeles until 1988, and no ozone concentration data is available for Beijing.

Still, some rough comparisons may be made by examining LA's TSP data as well as PM10 data from 1988 on. Here, I conclude the following:

1) Beijing's 2007 annual average PM10 concentration (148 ug/m^3) was approximately twice as high as that in LA in 2007 (76 ug/m^3), and about 1.4 times higher than that in LA in 1988 (104 ug/m^3)
2) Since the car ban went into effect in Beijing on 7/20, the average PM10 concentration has been 111 ug/m^3, 7% higher than LA's 1988 average.
3) Using a rough estimate that PM10 in LA is about 55% of TSP, I estimate the average PM10 concentration in LA during the 1984 Olympics to be around 68 ug/m^3 (corresponding to a Chinese API of 59), more than double the concentration during the Atlanta Games.

Analysis: Again, let's start by examining data sources. The best data source I found was Air Quality Data Statistics from the California Air Resources Board. For an overview, I chose Air Quality Trend Summaries and queried PM10 for the South Coast Air Basin. Unfortunately, the earliest data available in this query is from 1988. Prior to 1988, it seems that the EPA only required the measurement of Total Suspended Particles (TSP), not PM10. The difference between TSP and PM10 is that TSP includes all particles of all sizes, whereas PM10 only includes particles smaller than 10 microns in size. The smaller particles are more damaging to human health because they penetrate deeper into the lungs.

Below is a graph of the available annual PM10 average data for the South Coast Air Basin and Beijing:

It is clear from this graph that Beijing's annual PM10 concentration is still significantly higher than that in Los Angeles, even looking all the way back to 1988.

But, as mentioned in my post on Atlanta, during the Olympics we care less about yearly averages and more about daily averages. And, indeed, the air quality in Beijing recently has been considerably better than the 2007 average. Specifically, the average PM10 concentration in Beijing since 7/20 has been 111 ug/m^3, just 7% higher than LA's 1988 average (104 ug/m^3).

Though PM10 data is not available for LA during the Olympics, it may be worth taking a look at the TSP data to see what we can learn. Summary data for the area is not available prior to 1988, but we can query individual monitoring stations going back to 1983. I chose to query a 10-week period in 1984 starting with July 1. Though there are 12 monitoring sites in Los Angeles, daily data only exists for two stations: Los Angeles - North Main St. and Azusa. This data is shown in the graph below:

During the Olympic period (7/28/84 - 8/12/84), the average TSP concentration at LA - North Main St. was 113 ug/m^3, while the average at Azusa was 136 ug/m^3. I will take an average of these two readings, 124 ug/m^3, as a rough estimate of the TSP concentration in LA during the 1984 Olympics.

Of course, the most obvious question then is: what percentage of the TSP is PM10? I'm not sure the best way to answer this, but I suppose it's reasonable to make a rough approximation by comparing TSP and PM10 data for a time period in which both are available. Towards this goal, I queried TSP and PM10 for the first available year - 1988 - for the Los Angeles - North Main St. station, and compared the TSP to PM10 results for all common data points throughout the year. The result is that on average, the PM10 concentration was 55% of the TSP concentration.

Applying this 55% factor to the Olympic TSP data described above yields an estimated PM10 concentration during the Los Angeles Olympics of around 68 ug/m^3, corresponding to a Chinese API of 59. This result is significantly lower than even the 1988 average, but is consistent with descriptions of considerably improved air quality in LA during the 1984 Games.

Conclusion: Though it is impossible to compare directly the air in Beijing with the air in Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympics, it is clear that, from the perspective of PM10, Beijing's average air is considerably more polluted than that in Los Angeles even in the late 1980's. During the 2008 Olympics, for Beijing's air to be considered equal quality to Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympics, Beijing's API during the Games should average 59 or below.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

the mood with just three days left

After seven years of construction and hype, it's hard to believe that the Games will finally be here in just three days. As we go down the home stretch, it's interesting to compare the mood internationally with that here within China.

Internationally, the overarching tone is one of question-filled tension, as if there are all these coiled springs here in Beijing, and everyone is just waiting to see which one is released first. Many Western media articles, as well as my friends and family, simply seem to be wondering out loud, musing on any of a number of topics:

- Will China's temporary environmental measures work?
- What will China's reaction to protests on its own soil be?
- Will the Games be safe and secure, given Beijing's unprecedented focus and expenditure on security? (Side question: is the extreme security justified by the threat, or simply an excuse for the Chinese government to increase surveillance and controls on its own people?)
- What will foreigner visitors think of the "sanitized" Beijing, one in which the taxi drivers speak English, dog is not served on menus, everyone queues properly, and no one spits?

On the whole, with regard to many of these questions, George Vecsey summarizes, "China sought these Games as a major step in its coming-out party, and now China will be tested in front of the world." So now the big question is, will China pass?

Of course, pervading so much of the asking of these questions internationally is an overall pessimistic tone, and sense that China may not pass the test. Over the weekend, one of CNN's home page leading headlines was, "Pollution, Internet, doping dominate Olympics lead-up." Everyone has the coiled springs under a microscope, watching for signs of movement.

In Western conversations, it seems to me that the myriad questions being asked, the anticipation, the anxiety, the sense that any stability is tenuous and any successes short-lived - all of it boils down to the fact that so many see these Olympics as a chance to have a referendum on China as a whole. I think this quote in a recent New York Times letter by Tom Scocca is a good summary:
...the underlying, animating question (or problem): is China fit to host the Summer Olympics? For some segments of the West, it can be answered by a simple syllogism: the Olympics are good. China is bad. China should not host the Olympics.

Like an expandable roller bag, that conclusion can be unzipped to hold whatever ideology you’d like to carry along in it: anti-Communism, democracy, Tibetan independence, press freedom, environmentalism, workers’ rights, Internet openness, Darfur.
Take your pick of the above issues. Each one is all over the news and conversations in the West, and so often accompanied by the simple concluding question, "How will the Olympics affect _____?"

Whereas the mood internationally is dominated by questions of politics and the environment, here in China, as one would expect, the mood is quite different. In my experience, there has been a slow and gradual shifting in mood over the last six or eight months.

At the beginning of this year, there seemed to be a combination of blind optimism and unspecific hope for the Olympics; when I asked my colleague in January what his biggest concern for the Olympics was, he thought for a long time but couldn't think of a single response. Similarly, in this video shot in February and posted on Time's China blog, many Chinese responded to the question of, "What's your biggest hope for 2008" simply with, "That China host the Olympics well," though with few specifics of what defines "well."

From March to May, though, there was a marked shift in China's mood. A series of negative events in China (Tibetan uprising, torch protests internationally, Sichuan earthquake, and others) left many Chinese feeling like victims, and I think suddenly there was a very real sense that perhaps something could go wrong in August as well. Surging nationalism encouraged China to stay strong in the face of such disasters; in May I was invited by a Chinese friend to join a Facebook group called "2008 China Hold On!" whose description reads, in part:
we have been expecting the great Olympics for years, but now when it is coming to us in 3 months, my country and our government are facing unexpected natural disasters and worldwide politcial challenges...

as a local Beijing person, I worried for such situation, while at the same time, i have condifence in our government. i am sure they can overcome all these difficulties and show the world how great and strong China is.
(I declined to join the group.)

Without the ability to predict or control natural disasters, China's fear of failure became more and more specifically focused on the fear of terrorism or vindictive sabotage. The response: increased security.

The impacts of the added security went much further than just inconvenience (three personal impacts: now having to send all bags through an x-ray before boarding the subway, having to show ID every time I enter my work complex, and being frisked three times recently before being allowed to enter a bar). The increased security was accompanied by an increased paranoia on the part of the Chinese that a terrorist attack might occur. In June, I asked all of my colleagues their biggest hope for the upcoming Olympics. In contrast to the responses from similar questions earlier in the year, this time about half of them said their only hope was for a peaceful, safe, and secure Olympics. (The other half hoped that they wouldn't have to work during the Games.) The fear of a terrorist attack or other deliberate disruption seemed acute and widespread. A few colleagues even mentioned leaving Beijing out of fear that it wouldn't be safe to stay here.

But over the last few weeks, it seems to me, the mood here within China has shifted again, this time away from one of paranoia about security and back to one of optimism, pride, and hope. Aided by the Olympic banners and Chinese flags that have gone up all over the city as well as the ever-optimistic state media, I think the mood here is positive, confident, and celebratory that China overcame so many obstacles and is ready, finally, to welcome the world.

I'll conclude with a telling example. Last weekend, at the exact same time that CNN featured the home page headline claiming pollution, censorship, and doping were dominating the Olympics lead-up, China Daily's home page led with the hard-hitting, "Rogge: Beijing Olympic Village is best ever." In light of this, I think a more accurate headline for CNN probably would have been, "Pollution, Internet, doping dominate Western media coverage about Olympics lead-up; China confident and patting themselves on the back."

Photo credits - 1: China Daily; 2:, via The Beijinger.

Monday, August 4, 2008

atlanta 1996 olympic air quality

This is the first of what I hope will be several posts over the course of this week exploring historical air quality data from other Olympic cities. I'm starting with Atlanta because that's where I grew up. :)

Summary: Since the car ban went into effect in Beijing on 7/20, the average concentration of PM10 in Beijing's air has been 3.4 times higher than that in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympic Games. During the 1996 Olympics, the overall average concentration of PM10 in Atlanta was 31 ug/m^3. The highest daily average concentration was 51 ug/m^3. These values correspond to a Chinese API of 31 and 51, respectively. Since the car ban went into effect in Beijing on 7/20, Beijing's overall average concentration of PM10 has been 104 ug/m^3, with a daily average high of 186 ug/m^3. These values correspond to a Chinese API of 75 and 118, respectively.

Analysis: To start with, let's examine data sources. The most complete data source I found for historical air quality data in Atlanta was Georgia's Ambient Monitoring Program Database Query for Pollutant Data.

Historical data available for the Atlanta metro area during the Olympic period (7/19/96-8/4/96) includes ozone, SO2, CO, and PM10. (Info on available data is here; for this analysis I looked at the Georgia Tech monitoring station).

Ideally, we would compare all four pollutants to Beijing's current levels. However, since we have no ozone data for Beijing, and PM10 is almost always the highest reported pollutant in Beijing, I focused my analysis for now only on PM10. Depending on time and interest, I may ultimately try to run numbers for CO and SO2, but we'll see.

I queried the Georgia database for PM10 data for various time frames and averaged the results to generate the following table:

(Maxes and mins are from daily averages, not hourly data points.)
(For a description of how to convert PM concentration to Chinese API, see the bottom of this post.)

From this table we can observe the following:

1) During the 1996 Olympics, the overall average concentration of PM10 in Atlanta was 31 ug/m^3. The highest daily concentration was 51 ug/m^3. These values correspond to a Chinese API of 31 and 51, respectively.
2) Atlanta's PM10 concentrations one month before the Olympics were significantly higher than they were during the Games.
3) Atlanta's PM10 concentrations exactly one year after the Olympics were not significantly different than they were during the Games.

The following graph shows the daily average PM10 concentrations for Atlanta during the 17 days of the Olympics:

Now let's compare to Beijing.

First of all, Beijing's 2007 average PM10 concentration was 148 ug/m^3, nearly 5 times Atlanta's average during the 1996 Olympics. (Source: Beijing 2007 Environmental Yearbook, in Chinese).

Since the car ban went into effect on 7/20, I calculate an average PM10 concentration for Beijing of 104 ug/m^3. This is significantly lower than the 2007 average, and is within Beijing's own air quality goal of a PM10 concentration below 150 ug/m^3 (corresponding to an API of 100), but is still about 3.4 times higher than the average concentration in Atlanta during the 1996 Games.

But during the Olympics, we care less about averages, and more about the precise daily results during a specific 17-day period. Since 7/20, Beijing has had a number of days which exceed China's air quality standard, the highest being 7/26, with an average daily PM10 concentration of 186 ug/m^3 (corresponding to an API of 118).

(Source for all Beijing API data is the query function at the bottom of MEP's API page (in Chinese).)

Conclusion: It seems clear that, at least from the perspective of PM10 concentration, Beijing's average air at present is still significantly more polluted than the air was in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympic Games. If Beijing hopes to equal Atlanta's air quality with respect to PM10, Beijing's API during the Games should average 31 or below.

how quickly things can change - API back up to 83

After a beautiful blue sky weekend, the white haze has returned again to Beijing. I spent the entire day outside in the dense, stuffy, heavy air, wondering to myself how anyone could imagine competing in such conditions.

MEP is reporting an API of 83 (though it is days like today that make me long for an independent confirmation of the official data). Here's the updated data since the car ban went into effect on 7/20:

The upturn takes us dangerously close to the limit of 100, and would, it seems to me, make MEP strongly consider moving forward with Plan B. We'll see what happens.

I had wondered if, after the rains of 7/28-7/30 cleared out any residual pollution, we had reached some sort of stable state where the 7/20 bans were finally doing the trick. Apparently I was wrong.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

what is the API and how is it calculated?

This post is intended to be a brief explanation of the Chinese air pollution index, API. This post will not include comparisons to other international systems; I will write about that sometime in the next couple of days.

The API is a single number indicating the air quality on a given day. The API goes from 0 to 500. The higher the number, the worse the air quality is on that day. China assigns an overall air quality to different ranges of APIs, as shown in this image:

(Note: the English translations here may be under revision.)

A "Blue Sky Day" is defined as a day for which the API is 100 or below; in other words, a day in which the air quality is either "excellent" or "good" according to Chinese designations.

The API is determined from only three pollutants: SO2, NO2, and PM10. The concentration of each pollutant is measured at various stations throughout the city over a 24-hour period (noon to noon). The average daily concentration of each pollutant is then converted to a normalized index using the following table:

Linear interpolation is performed between each set of points to determine an API for each pollutant from that pollutant's concentration.

Once normalized, there are technically three APIs, one for each pollutant. (Note: Individual pollutant APIs for each measuring station are reported daily by the Beijing EPB on the Olympic air quality website.) Beijing's single API reported daily by MEP is the simply the highest of the three averages. In Beijing, the highest of the three is almost always PM10.


To convert from API to PM10 concentration (assuming PM10 is the highest on that day), use the following formulas:

For API 0-51: PM10 concentration = API/1000
For API 51-200: PM10 concentration = (API - 25)/500
For API 201-300: PM10 concentration = (API + 300)/1429
For API 301-400: PM10 concentration = (API + 225)/1250
For API 401-500: PM10 concentration = (API + 100)/1000

Again, for these formulas to be applicable the reported API must be the API for PM10.

Friday, August 1, 2008

air quality translation inconsistencies

A little while ago, Tom at had a great post comparing China's API to WHO guidelines. In a final, somewhat ancillary paragraph in the post, he pointed out that China's translation of its air quality levels appeared to have changed:

"Also interesting to see how the interpretations of the API levels has shifted a bit:

1 = API 0-50 = excellent (old) => good (new)
2 = API 51-100 = good => moderate
3A = API 101-150 = slightly polluted => unhealthy for sensitive groups
3B = API 151-200 = light polluted => unhealthy
4A = API 201-250 = moderate polluted => very unhealthy
4B = API 251-300 = moderate-heavy polluted => hazardous

Especially the re-classification of ‘light polluted’ to ‘unhealthy’ is remarkable; the new classification is in fact very similar to the US-EPA."

He refers to an image, a screen capture from 7/23/08:

I was quite surprised to see those translations, not only what Tom pointed out, but also the re-categorization of 51-100 as "moderate" instead of "good," and the first-time use of the term "hazardous." I was additionally very surprised because, at that time, I remember that the Chinese on the same site was still the same as in the official explanation:

1 = API 0-50 = 优 "excellent"
2 = API 51-100 = 良 "good"
3A = API 101-150 = 轻微污染 "slightly polluted"
3B = API 151-200 = 轻度污染 "light polluted"
4A = API 201-250 = 中度污染 "moderate polluted"
4B = API 251-300 = 中度重污染 "moderate-heavy polluted"
5 = API 301-500 = 重污染 "heavily polluted"

In other words, for a short period of time on the Beijing Olympic air quality site, an API of 51-100 was listed as "moderate" air quality in English, but "" (literally "good") air quality in Chinese.

Shortly thereafter, I noticed that the English changed again, this time removing the word "hazardous" for the worst level but keeping "moderate" for 51-100. Unfortunately, I don't have a screenshot of this set of translations.

As of now (8/1 evening), there is a third presentation of the air quality levels in English, and, as far as I know, for the first time we have a new presentation in Chinese as well. Avoiding terms altogether, the air quality level is simply indicated as no-context roman numerals (these are used on the Chinese version as well as the English version):

Clearly, China is preparing for hundreds (thousands?) of scientists and journalists scrutinizing its air quality numbers and judgments, and hasn't 100% settled on exactly how to present them.

API of 27

With an API of just 27 today, Beijing is GORGEOUS. This is only the third time this year Beijing's API has been below 30.

Data since 7/20:

I think I'm going to go home and go running.

china reacts to US resolution on human rights

Two days ago, the US House passed a broad resolution urging China "to immediately end abuses of the human rights of its citizens, to cease repression of Tibetan and Uighur people, and to end its support for the Governments of Sudan and Burma."

Perhaps surprisingly, this action by the House was reported in the Chinese media. But I think there is a lot to be learned from examining exactly how it was reported. I'll reference this China Daily article as a typical case.

First of all, to understand how the Chinese media reported this event, we have to ignore the actual content of the resolution, because, as one would expect, the content itself was never discussed. What was discussed in the Chinese media, however, was the basic fact that the House said something negative about China in advance of the Olympics.

Some key sentences of the China Daily article that stood out to me:
"The passing of the resolution at this time has fully exposed the attempt of the very few anti-China US lawmakers to politicize the Olympics and their evil intention to disrupt and sabotage the Beijing Olympic Games," said the official.

"Such a deed has violated the Olympic spirit and aim, and also violated the common wish of the world people, including the US people," said the official.
Magically, the resolution now has nothing to do with human rights, and everything to do with "evil" attempts to "sabotage" the peaceful and harmonious Olympics. Who would dare do such a thing? And not only that, these views (supposedly) aren't even shared by the American people!

There are at least two tactics here that probably could be taught in PR classes.

First, the content of the resolution is discredited as being from a fringe group of China-haters who do not represent the majority opinion. (The article conveniently fails to mention that the resolution passed 419-1.) Therefore, the content isn't even worth spending time reviewing.

Second, the dialogue in China has been successfully deflected away from China's human rights record and onto the supposedly unfounded, unfaltering, unfair criticism so often levied by foreigners on China. This, of course, ultimately bolsters nationalism with an "us vs. them" attitude.

Similar tactics were employed by the Chinese media during the Tibet uprising in March of this year, especially with regard to CNN's biased reporting:
Chinese netizens, including students studying overseas, have been angered by biased and sometimes dishonest reports about the recent riots in Tibet by some Western media.
Another article described a "wave of anger and patriotism generated by CNN's recent offensive coverage of China."

Again, the two-fold tactic is to discredit the source and then use supposed foreign bias to fuel nationalism.

I may be getting too far off course here by linking the House resolution to foreign media coverage of China, but I think a common and important theme is that statements and reports by foreigners often have unexpected and/or undesired impacts within China. With regard to the House resolution specifically, I think Americans need to be very clear that actions like this a) have a completely different tone within China than they do outside of these borders; b) probably affect little or no actual change; and c) may ultimately have precisely the wrong impact if they only serve to hinder future trust and communication.