Friday, September 26, 2008

no pollution spike yet - API of 17!

Sunset snapshot from a friend's window

The buzz among Beijingers (at least among my friends) today is how clean the air felt last night and today. And it turns out they're right. The API from noon yesterday to noon today was a lung-clearing 17. This is tied for the lowest on record (going back to June, 2000).

There have been only four days in the last eight years with an API of 17. They were 10/12/2003, 10/1/2004, and 8/15/2008, which I blogged about.

Update 10/20/08: In reviewing data today on MEP's new air pollution database website, I unexpectedly discovered the unbelievably low API of 12 listed for 9/23/08. That day currently ranks as the lowest API going back to June, 2000.

The pollution spike I feared occurring after 9/20 hasn't happened yet anyway...

thoughts on runaway climate change

This morning on the subway, I was so deep in thought about climate change that I missed my stop. Specifically, I can't stop thinking about a Letterman video I watched a couple of days ago and a graph I saw this morning.

First, the Letterman video. The basic message, presented with classic Letterman deadpanning, is, "We're Doomed."

While I appreciate the attention given to global climate change, and I do enjoy the humor, I generally prefer a more optimistic approach to problem solving...

...But then I saw this graph, from the Global Carbon Project, showing the updated trend of global carbon emissions from fossil fuels:

(As reported on Climate Progress and Climate Feedback.)

Update: the data in this graph just made the front page of CNN: Carbon Dioxide Output Jumps to Record Level.

The data in this graph is terrifying, and it's not just because the trend is going the wrong way (increasing as opposed to decreasing). It's terrifying because actual emissions are outpacing assumed emissions even under the IPCC's "worst case scenario" (actual growth has been 3.5% per year since 2000 as opposed to projected 2.7%). Even without these "extra" emissions, though, the effects of climate change are already being seen much earlier than anticipated by climate models (example: the faster than expected melting of Arctic sea ice). This is principally because the climate models underestimate the effects of certain feedback mechanisms that accelerate warming. A classic example is the fact that as Arctic sea ice melts, it reveals more dark ocean, which absorbs solar radiation more than reflective white ice; this absorption causes the earth to warm faster, which melts more ice, revealing more dark ocean, further perpetuating the cycle.

So then back to Letterman's "It's too late" argument. Though the optimist in me rejects the conclusion, there are days (like today) in which the cynical side of me looks at the data, recognizes how little progress we have made in the fight against global climate change, considers the challenges ahead towards even just slowing the growth in greenhouse gas emissions (not to mention reducing them!), and thinks, How are ever going to do this?

Lastly, the following animation, "Wake Up, Freak Out - then Get a Grip," does a good job describing the "tipping point" of the earth's climate system, beyond which catastrophic changes are inevitable:

(Note: I think the second half of the video is a little too apocalyptic, which I think undermines his conclusion that it's not too late, but nonetheless the first half is quite good.)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

final day of temporary air quality measures

Prior to the Games, a major question asked on this blog and elsewhere was, "Will Beijing's efforts to control the air quality work?" (Some analysts even boldly predicted that they wouldn't.) And now, here we are, on September 20th, 2008 - the final day of the temporary environmental policies implemented by the Beijing government to control air quality during the Olympic and Paralympic period - with a resounding "yes" answer to that question.

Through the banning of over half the cars on the roads, the temporary closing of factories, the shutting down of construction in the city, and a little luck from the weather (on second thought, not luck), Beijing managed over the past two months to reduce air pollution by around 50% (analysis at the bottom of this post) and yield the cleanest air the city has seen in ten years.

Let's look one last time at the graph of daily Air Pollution Index during the Olympic period:

And some averages:

Average API, Two-month Olympic period, 7/20/08 - 9/20/08: 62
Average API, Olympics, 8/8/08 - 8/24/08: 49
Average API, Paralympics, 9/6/08 - 9/17/08: 59

According to my analysis, these numbers are comparable to the air quality during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (in that previous post, I estimated that the air quality during the Los Angeles Olympics would have rated as a Chinese API of 59).

To get a better sense of just how much better Beijing's air actually was from 7/20 - 9/20 of this year, it makes sense to convert the numbers from API back into particulate matter concentration (explanation at bottom of this post), and compare those numbers against some past data.

The following table shows average API and PM10 concentrations for some selected time periods over the past three years (2006 and 2007 PM10 data from Beijing EPB environmental annual reports):

Update 10/20/08: Found a minor mistake in the first version of the PM10 data I showed below; fixed now.

From this data, we can calculate that, according to PM10 concentrations, Beijing's air during the two-month Olympic period was:

-- 44% less polluted than the first half of 2008;
-- 40% less polluted than the same period in 2007;
-- 47% less polluted than all of 2007;
-- 51% less polluted than all of 2006.

These numbers are comparable to the Beijing EPB's statement that concentrations of major pollutants were cut by 45% during the month of August.

Lastly, for a different perspective on the impact of the temporary air quality control policies, I wanted to show API data over a much longer time period. The following graph shows daily API readings from the beginning of 2006 to today:

I find this graph fascinating (granted, I'm an engineer). Two key observations jump out at me: first, the average API during the Olympic period is clearly lower than any previous periods of comparable length. Second, perhaps more interestingly, the extreme variability has been reduced tremendously; specifically, Beijing succeeded in prevented any severe spikes in air pollution that were so common in previous periods.

Which, of course, leaves me wondering: how long before we see another one of those dreaded spikes?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

paralympics air quality update - 9/6 API missing

The last time I presented daily API data was on August 24th, the final day of the Olympics. With the Paralympics now underway, I figure it's time to take another detailed look at the air quality status.

Since 7/20, the day the odd/even car ban and other temporary air quality control policies went into effect, the graph of daily API values is as follows:

A couple of things worth noting:

1) Though the API was below the target cut-off of 100 for the entire Olympic period, between the Olympics and Paralympics we saw one day, 8/29, in which the API shot up to 110.

2) The API data for 9/6 is conspicuously missing. (As always, my source for API data is the query at the bottom of MEP's air quality page.) Does anyone out there have this data point, perhaps from the Beijing EPB? I seem to remember that day - the day of the Paralympic opening ceremony - being particularly hazy, but I didn't check the data then. Missing data is always concerning, of course, but especially here.

Still, though, the results for overall air quality since 7/20 are remarkable. The average API from 7/20-9/9 of this year is 63; during the same period last year the average was 89.

Lastly, the weather has seemed quite strange recently here in Beijing; over the last few days I've seen two of the heaviest thunderstorms I can remember in China. Anyone agree?

Monday, September 8, 2008

paralympics underway!

Last Saturday night, the Paralympics began here in Beijing with a gorgeous and moving opening ceremony. Apparently you can watch it online here, though I can't seem to get the site to work from within China.

One of the most powerful moments of the ceremony was the lighting of the torch (which, by the way, it's nice to see blazing again!). Three-time high jump gold medalist Hou Bin hoisted himself, his wheelchair, and the torch by pulley from the floor of the stadium all the way up to the base of the cauldron.

It took him over three minutes to reach the top, and you could clearly see the strain on his face as he struggled to continue, even pausing occasionally to rest. It was an incredibly powerful symbol both of the struggle faced by so many people with disabilities as well as the ability to succeed and overcome those struggles through perseverance.

Here's the video on YouTube:

Photo credits: 1) Reuters/David Gray via NYT; 2) Xinhua.

Friday, September 5, 2008


A couple of quick disclaimers regarding information on this blog:

1) The opinions I share on this blog are mine alone, and do not represent those of my past or current employer (who I have not named here).

2) The analysis I present on this blog has not been peer-reviewed (unless otherwise noted), and should generally be considered back-of-the-envelope data explorations intended to promote discussion, not rigorous scientific analysis. I will, however, cite original data sources and explain assumptions and reasoning as much as possible, in case others want to verify my analysis and/or take it further.

Please feel free to link to or cite information on this blog, but if you do I ask that you stay mindful of the above two points.

If you have any questions, please contact me at livefrombeijing at gmail dot com.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

what will happen on september 21st?

In my last post, I described how international media and conversation about Beijing's air largely went silent starting around the second week of the Olympics. However, local conversation here in Beijing has been anything but quiet. If anything, just as foreigners began to lose interest in the seeming non-story of Beijing's lack of air pollution, the local buzz about the improved air quality was just starting to gain momentum.

First, a little background: in August, 2008, Beijing had the cleanest air in 10 years, with the "density of major pollutants cut by 45%" during the month. The data is in and the results (and the air) are clear - the temporary measures to reduce air pollution in Beijing worked.

I remember when the temporary measures were announced back in June, I had mixed reactions. While on the one hand I was personally excited for two months of breathing clean air and riding my bike on gridlock-free streets, as an environmental professional I was disappointed that such temporary policies were needed in the first place. Clearly, the preferred solution would have been the implementation of stringent, permanent air pollution control policies that would have ensured sustainable, Olympics-approved air quality without the need for stop-gap measures. As I contemplated the potential results of the temporary policies, I asked many of my friends and colleagues what they thought would happen on September 21st (the first day after the temporary bans end). At that time (late June), virtually everyone's unanimous response was that Beijing would simply revert back to the same old smog that we had all become used to. In other words, most people I asked thought there would be no long term impacts of the temporary policies.

But I think those of us who have lived in non-polluted cities (please allow me to use the phrase "seen the light," meaning lived in a place where you can't look directly at the sun without burning your eyes, as you often can in Beijing) always held out one great hope: that Beijing's residents and politicians would be inspired; that they would experience life with crystal clear blue skies every day and wouldn't want to go back.

And over the past week or two in Beijing, the most amazing thing has happened: it seems that hope is being fulfilled. Media articles, blog posts, and chat forum polls are filled with discussion on how to keep the air quality this good, with much specific debate on whether or not the odd/even car ban should be made permanent.
I'm happy - ecstatic - that these discussions are happening, and that the citizens of Beijing are taking direct interest in and action on air quality. I am even more ecstatic that, so far, the government is open to the opinions and suggestions of the people.

Regarding the permanence of the odd/even car ban, I think it is natural and expected that this should be the focus of the discussion, as this is the single temporary policy that has affected individual citizens the most. However, while I hate to inject any negativity into what I consider to be a wonderful development of citizen environmental activism in China, I feel I must point out that a permanent odd/even car ban may not be the best long term strategy to maintain the air quality we saw over the month of August. For one thing, it is unclear right now how much the air quality improvement can be attributed to the vehicle reduction (as opposed to the factory closures and construction halting). For another thing, as was pointed out on Time's China blog, such a policy could end up having the opposite desired effect, depending on the resulting purchase and use of second cars.

To summarize: hurray for the people in Beijing for demanding that this air quality continue, for the Chinese media for publishing their demands, and for the Chinese government for listening. But let's make sure this energy and drive are directed in the right directions. And what are those right directions? Well, Alex Pasternack has a great start up on Treehugger: 10 Ways Beijing (and Other Cities) Can Keep Its Skies Blue and Road Gridlock-Free.

olympics round-up: impressions of air quality

Photo by Lila Buckley

In the weeks leading up to the Olympics, Beijing's air quality was constantly in the news; questions about whether Beijing would meet its air quality targets, whether events would need to be postponed, and whether the pollution would affect athletes' performances seemed to be the constant refrain of Western conversations about the upcoming Games. In early July, the New York Times cited air quality as one of two primary remaining uncertainties about the preparations.

As the Games approached, these concerns seemed to be entirely validated. Two weeks prior to the Games, Beijing's air pollution exceeded the Olympic standard for four straight days; even the last few days before the opening ceremony were dangerously close to the limit.

Over the first few days of the Games, though, as the API bounced up and down, we began to see mixed reviews about the quality and the impacts. At that time, I predicted a stalemate, imagining that the end result would be the Chinese claiming success with regard to air quality and foreigners grudging that it still wasn't good enough. (Interesting side note here: as I have indicated, the average API during the Olympics was 49; before the Games started, beijingairblog specifically quoted an expert stating that an API of 50 was still "very unhealthy," claiming that only an average API of 25 would be "acceptable for Olympic competition.")

But then, by the second week of the Olympics, a funny - and unexpected - thing happened. The stalemate I predicted never really happened, because Beijing's air quality critics backed down. By August 13th, the New York Times called it "the great air pollution scare," dubbing it "the Y2K computer scare — a nonevent." On the 18th, danwei titled a blog post "Pollution wussies go quiet." Later, DH commented on my blog:
Yo Vance, Gotta tell you that after the start of the games I heard almost NOTHING about air quality from any of the major news sources. Seems like maybe they just decided it wasn't a story anymore. Plus none of the athletes wore those Batman-style gasmasks so there may have been no real "story" to cover...
By the end of the Games, air pollution was a non-issue, eclipsed by so many other stories of the Olympics. Air quality, which seemed so dominant a concern before the Games happened, was barely even mentioned in many of the summary write-ups of the Games that appeared shortly after the closing ceremony. (For example here, here, here, and here.)

However, while Beijing's air quality may no longer be making many headlines abroad, the exact opposite is true here in China. But this is a topic for a separate post...