Tuesday, December 16, 2008

beijing meets 2008 blue sky day target

Earlier this month, the Beijing EPB announced that Beijing reached the 2008 target for total number of "blue sky days" one month early. A "blue sky day" is defined as one for which the API is below 100, indicating "excellent" (优) or "good" (良) air quality.

The stated goal of this blog is to "explore miscommunication between China and the West on issues of the environment and beyond." As such, I want to highlight a major difference between how this story was reported within China and internationally.

Specifically, let's look at the Xinhua English language report and the China Daily report (domestic) vs. the widely distributed Associated Press report (international). As expected, the domestic sources are purely positive. Xinhua's lead is simple and dither-free:
Beijing fulfils "blue sky" day goal one month in advance
Beijing has met its 2008 target of 256 blue sky days as Sunday marked another day of good air quality.
China Daily's lead is even more decisive:
Clear days' target met before time
Determined efforts, special measures and good weather helped Beijing achieve its annual target of 256 blue-sky days yesterday, a full month before the end of the year.
Compare these to the AP's lead:
Beijing claims early victory over air pollution
BEIJING (AP) — Beijing said Monday it has already reached its target number of 256 "blue-sky days" this year, with the help of ambitious environmental measures the city imposed to cut emissions for the Olympic Games.
Two words - "claims" and "said" - in the AP lead jump out at me as setting a very different tone from the Xinhua and China Daily stories. The implication being that the truth may be different from what the Beijing EPB proclaims. And, indeed, this suspicion over data integrity is substantiated in the last three paragraphs of the AP story, three paragraphs that are conspicuously absent from the domestic China reporting:
Steven Andrews, an independent environmental consultant based in Washington, said Beijing's claims of improved air quality are not reliable because the city has moved monitoring stations to less-polluted areas and has varied the way it has measured pollutants since 1998.

"They've measured different things during that time period and it has a huge impact on the number of days that meet the national standard," Andrews said in a telephone interview.

Such inconsistencies mean that the increase in the number of blue-sky days may be due to the change of monitoring locations, rather than a reduction in overall pollution levels, he said.
For me, the discrepancy between the international and domestic reporting is deeply frustrating on several levels.

Perhaps most importantly, I am frustrated that Beijing's air quality data is (justifiably) not considered trustworthy by the international community, and that the Chinese media is forbidden (or just blind) to questioning it. As I have posted before, Steven Andrews' excellent analysis of Beijing's historical air quality data strongly suggests past data manipulation, in addition to his reasonable claim that one cannot directly compare the number of Blue Sky Days from different years due to monitoring station location changes. Until the Beijing government takes concrete steps to improve data transparency and independent confirmation, questions of data trustworthiness should and will remain.

On the other hand, though, I am frustrated because, due largely to the two-month shut down surrounding the Olympics, this is a year in which Beijing's air quality genuinely has been better. In other words, this is a year in which Beijing did not need to, and may not have, engaged in data manipulation to meet targets. Any yet, at a time when Beijing arguably deserves credit for achieving its Olympic air quality goals (and for taking steps to maintain air quality in the post-Olympic period), there still seems to be a strong sense in the international community that any success Beijing achieved is either fake or was achieved by cheating. Virtually every conversation I have with a non-Chinese about Beijing's air quality begins with, "well isn't it true that Beijing's air quality data is bogus anyway?"

In relation to the AP article, consider this statement:
Such inconsistencies mean that the increase in the number of blue-sky days may be due to the change of monitoring locations, rather than a reduction in overall pollution levels, he said.
While it may be true that the change in monitoring stations affected the number of days considered Blue Sky Days, this does not necessarily mean that there was not a reduction in overall pollution levels from 2007 to 2008.

My final point of frustration is really a technical issue with the number Blue Sky Days metric. Simply put, the number of Blue Sky Days metric is meaningless from a human health perspective, since what matters is average concentration of pollutants, not number of days below an arbitrary cut-off point. The value of the number of Blue Sky Days metric is not scientific, it's social; it's a way of packaging air quality information into a format thought to be easily comprehended by the public. I mention this only to say that what I am really curious about regarding 2008 is not number of Blue Sky Days, but rather average annual particulate concentration. It is only with that data (combined with whatever additional independent confirmations are available) that we will be able to make any real judgments about changing air quality.

Image: China Daily

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