Tag Archives: Environment

Now you can compare Beijing PM 2.5 air quality readings on your phone

It just so happens that today is not one of the more beautiful days in Beijing. After a week of generally glorious fall weather, with exceedingly clear air (except once or twice), the national holiday is over and whatever process churns up the smog has resumed.

I’m not complaining. I haven’t been here long enough to get worked up about air quality. But it did lead me to check the China Air iPhone app that delivers official Chinese government pollution readings alongside the point-source reading from the U.S. embassy. And I noticed something new.

Before*, you would see only PM 2.5 (particle matter under 2.5 micrometers in diameter) for the U.S. embassy reading, and only PM 10 (10 micrometers), sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. The app gives indicies derived from each source’s standards, but the data weren’t directly comparable. These pollutants don’t necessarily come in tandem or in proportion.

Now, however, you can compare PM 2.5 readings from both sources. In the case of a few minutes ago, the U.S. was reading more PM 2.5 than the local government. These still aren’t comparable measures: Beijing creates a number based on many sampling stations, whereas the U.S. has one location. But there’s something to compare. If you trust the measurements from the government, which seems fairly reasonable to me in this case, you could learn that the U.S. embassy is in an unusually polluted part of town right now.

One superficial reason to take the new Chinese data seriously is that a government official has said we should not expect air to be super clean for quite some time. According to a Xinhua article (in Chinese), the city’s 20 new PM 2.5 sensors are expected to find particulate content over their standard of 150 mg/m^3 quite regularly for the foreseeable future. (“从北京整体空气质量水平看,PM2.5浓度值超标在很长一段时间内会经常出现.”)

Seems to me this new data has been around in some forms for some months, but this is the first direct comparison I saw.

*I note that the app’s iTunes page shows data for PM 2.5, but it had been “–” since I installed the app.

Polluting in the new year!

First, of course, happy new year to all those greeting the year of the dragon this week. I, for one, am suitably stuffed.

Second, via Angel Hsu, this image depicting what is most likely a huge cloud of noxious firecracker emissions as Beijing celebrated the new year (which, being lunar, coincided with the new moon). Beijing has promised to provide real-time data on PM-2.5 (particle matter under 2.5 microns), thought to be a category of pollution that acutely threatens human health.

The U.S. embassy in Beijing has for years offered live data from a sensor in its compound, and the addition of the Chinese data is welcomed. Just look at that spike!

Click for full size.

(To see for yourself, visit http://zx.bjmemc.com.cn/ and click on the PM2.5 tab.)

Ma Jun and the motivation boomerang: clever environmental advocacy

This evening I went to an event discussing human rights and the environment in China.* The big draw was Ma Jun, one of the most recognized names in Chinese environmental protection and the director of the Institute for Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE / 公众环境研究中心).

Ma Jun, 7 November 2011, New York City

Ma is a key figure in the movement for environmental protection, protection of humans from contaminated materials, and open information as a means to an end. He argues for a pragmatic mode of working in China that prioritizes outcomes over ideal processes.

That is to say, the democracy-oriented idealists in the crowd were at times unhappy with the approach that Ma describes as using “leverage” from areas where NGOs can operate to bring pressure to bear on areas where they might otherwise have little power. Asked by an audience member whether more direct challenges to the government might be more productive, he said, “We could better engage the government working in this way [i.e. by gathering and publishing information] than by some other channels.”

Other channels, such as direct litigation against polluters (or even the government), are not unheard of. Zhang Jingjing‘s work with the Center for Legal Assistance for Pollution Victims and other clients shows that litigation can work in some cases. But even more direct challenges, such as protesting outside factories, Ma said, are just not “sustainable.”

That’s what Ma described as the goal, and the progress seems significant. Ma and his colleagues do several kinds of work. In several areas, they collect and aggregate government data about environmental violations, then make it available online. This information empowers consumers and firms elsewhere in the supply chain to use government-produced data to make decisions.

Another kind of work is the aggregation and publication of public data on water quality and other environmental factors. This data is then added to a map-based database, and Google Earth is used to pinpoint polluters.

A third kind of work is perhaps the most interesting to systemic thinkers. This team’s work depends heavily on the availability of government statistics. As any China researcher knows, there are endless volumes of official statistics—if only you can get your hands on them. Luckily, Chinese law over the last three years or so has begun to require open information in a variety of circumstances, but adherence to the open information policies varies.

Ma’s group and a team from the Natural Resources Defense Council (Disclosure: I was a consultant to NRDC in 2008) have developed a Pollution Information Transparency Index (PITI). It’s exactly what it sounds like. Researchers request environmental information and rate the openness with which localities respond. After a few years, the ratings are generally rising, Ma said. This is progress measured, and it’s another decision making tool for businesspeople seeking out localities or individual firms to do business with.

All of this activity falls under what Ma called the need for “motivation” among polluters to improve. Information is thought to help decrease environmental and human costs by: (1) getting information about the problem out in the open; (2) providing information that allows newly informed decision makers discriminate based on environmental performance; thereby (3) bringing the market to bear on costs that would otherwise be externalized. This “boomerang” effect, one hopes, could be quite effective.

It’s not all so easy, you might say.

Andrew J. Nathan, the Columbia political scientist famous for, among other things, helping get the Tiananmen Papers published, asked a seminar discussant’s battery of questions. The most interesting for me, given the trials of doing social science using Chinese government data, was whether the data Ma and his team base their work on is any good.

“The quality, I would say, is troublesome,” Ma answered. Local authorities have all kinds of incentives to fudge numbers. But for the purposes of the motivation-producing boomerang effect above, accuracy takes a back seat to impact. Who cares if the numbers are half as bad as reality when even the falsified numbers can shake people into action and greater awareness?

This is the sort of pragmatic advocacy that one really has to admire. Direct challenges to authority or powerful interests in China are often futile and sometimes dangerous. As much as some people would like to institute a liberal democratic regime, someone should meanwhile be working on making things better in the actually existing world.

Ma previewed yet another information-based lever that could help investors with an ethical motivation put their money where their mind is. In several months, he said, IPE and a collaborator will release a website that allows anyone to look up a stock symbol listed in China or Hong Kong and immediately receive a report about environmental performance. Ethical investors, however uncertain their numbers, need information to make ethical decisions.

Chinese environmental advocacy will certainly require a diversity of tactics, but after an evening hearing Ma Jun describe his, I think it’s a particularly contemporary and strategic mode of work. While discontented with the status quo, these efforts nonetheless avoid the identity of the protester. In social movement theoretical terms, it’s hard even to say that the strategy is fully a form of “claims making” or “contention.” Instead, it’s an effort to tweak half-baked processes before they set and channel already existing incentives toward new goals.

* The event was put on by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, an organization that appears to work for “corporate social responsibility,” but that particular phrase was notably absent from the evening’s discussion.

Another side note: I was delighted to hear NRDC President Frances Beineke say on China: “I often think when I go there that we have outsourced our pollution there.” This is a turn of phrase I’ve been interested in for a long time.

[Edited for typos Jan 2, 2012.]

Environment Wednesdays?

At Infopolitics, I just posted the first of what may be many lists of recent links. I may do the same here, but I’ve tired of the Del.icio.us format. Maybe each day of the week will get a theme, too. Anyway, here’s a link on a U.S. supplier polluting Chinese rivers.

  • Greenpeace has found that a supplier to major international fashion firms is severely polluting at least one river in China, the Guardian reports.

    The Youngor facility in Ningbo, near Shanghai, was found to have discharged nonylphenol, an endocrine disruptor that builds up in the food chain, perfluorinated chemicals, which can have an adverse effect on the liver and sperm counts, as well as a cocktail of other toxins. …

    Greenpeace says Nike, Adidas, Puma, H&M and Lacoste have confirmed a business relationship with Youngor though all denied making use of the plant’s wet processes, which are likely to be responsible for the pollution discharges into the Fenghua river.

Pollution from space, and human geography

A remarkable photograph published by NASA shows, as Angel Hsu notes, the pollution in the air during the climate talks in Tianjin earlier this month. The high-resolution image is striking, and will live on the desktop of my external monitor for some time.

NASA notes that this image captures an event that resulted from increased emissions and stagnant air due to weather systems. But it also captures, in my amateur opinion, the population centers of China. The first thing I noticed after my habitual task of locating Beijing and drawing some borders in my head (as the political geographer must) was the lonely cloud and its vivid shadow, in the orange-cream yoghurt desert which I’m pretty sure is in Inner Mongolia, next to Gansu. The air, it appears, is glorious when you get far, far from population centers.

As we glance eastward into the eastern Ordos region, across the north-south section of the Yellow River, and into the heavily populated coastal and central plains provinces, we see air thick with particulates and fog. According to NASA, regular clouds look like the brilliant white at right and left.