We’re Winning the Air Pollution Data Battle—So What Next?

Last year, China made a breakthrough in the publication of air quality data, as more than sixty cities started to monitor and publish levels of the dangerous air pollutant PM2.5. But the figures themselves were depressing. With PM2.5—fine particulates—and ozone now included in ratings, air quality often fell to unhealthy levels. Microbloggers who had been demanding the extra information calmed down, but the worries of people living in the smog remain. There is still a long way to go before we live under blue skies. So where next?

In many other countries, cleaning up air pollution has been a long and painful process. It will be no easier for China, which is still industrializing and urbanizing. Given this, my NGO the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) has suggested a road map to bluer skies: from monitoring and publication; to air quality warnings and action; to targeting emissions at the source.

More specifically, the first step is to expand access to air-quality data—making pollution statistics more comprehensive, faster, and more consumer-friendly. The second is to give the public appropriate health warnings, both to reduce the impact on health and to motivate people to get involved in cutting pollution. And the third is to identify sources of pollution and come up with targeted and timetabled plans to cut that pollution.

Keeping the Public Better Informed with Health Warnings

We see progress on these steps, but also failings. First phase implementation of the government’s new air-quality standards requires seventy-four cities to publish data from 496 monitoring stations by the end of 2012. We have found over sixty cities have done this, with Beijing taking the lead by publishing PM2.5 data from early in the year.

In 2013, the cities already publishing the new data need to do so more rigorously and quickly. And the hundreds of cities that have not yet started need to improve their monitoring capabilities and work to publish that data as soon as possible in order to meet the public demand for environmental information. There is still a way to go on step one.

Completion of the second step—giving the public appropriate health warnings—is even further away. In 2011, the Ministry of Environmental Protection published consultation drafts of technical rules for daily publication of an Air Quality Index (AQI). This included health notices for susceptible groups, color-coded warnings, and recommended measures to take under different scenarios. In the case of pollution classed as “heavy” or “severe,” special suggestions for children were included.

As of early December 2012, only Shanghai and cities in Guangdong, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu provinces were publishing the AQI health information on their electronic maps. Most cities were just listing a “good,” “moderate,” or “poor” air-quality ratings. The next step is to include that health information, and improve the way information is published. With mobile phones now used to access the Internet more than computers, health information should be made available via social media including microblogs and instant messaging.

Shanghai’s efforts should be studied nationwide. The official Shanghai Air Quality App uses cartoon figures and text to quickly convey air quality information and pollution warnings. We would suggest that social sharing functions are added to this app to allow users to pass this information on to other residents.

It will take some time to deal with China’s air pollution, and so health information is crucial. Take Beijing as an example: its plans for treating air pollution from 2012 to 2020 include a 15 percent drop in PM2.5 levels on 2010 figures by 2015, a 30 percent drop by 2020, and reaching the national standard of an annual average of 35 micrograms per cubic meter by 2030. But 2030 is eighteen years away, and air pollution will remain high for this period. We need those warnings to prevent greater harm.

Last month, Beijing finally set out the city’s strategy for responding to heavy or severe pollution. When pollution is heavy, susceptible groups will be reminded to stop outdoor activity. When pollution is severe, schools will be advised to halt outdoor sports. The plans also include measures to reduce the number of cars on the roads and reduce polluting industrial activity. Although this does not go as far as needed to protect health, it is worthy of praise as the first such attempt under the new rules. Hopefully other key cities will follow suit during the coming year.

Where Is the Pollution Coming From?

Emergency response is very important, but in the long term we need to solve the root problem rather than simply react to it. We need to cut pollution. And to cut pollution, we need to know where it’s coming from. City environmental protection bureaus should know about sources of air pollution in their jurisdictions, but to date the only information released is a few crude statistics listing pollution from vehicles, coal power plants, industry, construction dust, agriculture, and regional sources. This information is too general and does not enable the public to participate in emissions reduction.

On December 5, the MEP published a program for preventing air pollution in key regions during the 12th Five Year Plan period (2011-2015). This requires dealing with sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, industrial smoke, dust, and volatile organic compounds from key industries, as well as petrol vapor recovery at filling stations and eliminating vehicles failing to meet basic emissions standards. These projects involve thousands and thousands of sources of pollution. Cutting pollution will require public oversight, and that requires public access to high quality information.

The publication of information on sources of pollution could be modeled on the publication of air quality monitoring data. Since 2012 the cities publishing air quality data have gradually increased the number of monitoring stations covered. Similarly, data on major sources of air pollution—coal power plants, the iron industry, ore refineries, concrete makers, and the chemical sector—can steadily be added to publication lists. This will allow the public to know who the major polluters are, and what pollutants they are emitting.

Vehicle pollution is more challenging to monitor and make public, as it comes from a huge and scattered number of sources. But research has found that a large part of vehicle pollution comes from goods transport and industrial vehicles. Some parts of China are attempting to attribute those emissions to the company responsible—a move which should be replicated.

We have also called for promptness. Some cities are already publishing air quality data on an hourly basis. This not only meets the public right to know, but also limits the opportunity to tamper with the data, thereby increasing the quality of the information. Today, many waste-gas pipes are fitted with online monitoring equipment, providing data which could be published frequently. There are no major technological obstacles here. For example, since early 2012, the environmental authorities in Zhejiang have been publishing daily reports on pollution sources, with the public able to check up on the daily average waste gases and water emissions from 563 state-controlled enterprises.

The type of information supplied can also be expanded. The first batch of cities to implement the new air-quality measurement rules are not just publishing an air pollution index—the actual values for PM2.5, ozone, and other pollutants are being published. Similarly, the data for actual pollutants released from sources of pollution could be published online in real time. That would allow the public to identify breaches of standards at a glance and work together to provide oversight.

As well as improving access to information collected under government supervision, we should also learn from overseas experience and create a compulsory system for the registration of the emission and transfer of pollutants, so that the public can see the pollutants a company has released, and annual changes. The publication of that data would provide a basis on which to implement environmental economic measures such as green lending, green securities, and green supply chains, and push major polluters to clean up their acts.