I am shocked — shocked! — that Beijing was caught goosing its environmental data!
Beijing’s Sky BluesBy STEVEN Q. ANDREWS
January 9, 2008
BEIJING — Blue skies are here again in Beijing, just in time for the Olympics — or are they? Last week the Chinese government rolled out new statistics claiming that air quality has dramatically improved between 1998 and last year. But a closer look at the data and changes in collection methods casts doubt on the government’s sunny claims — and raises serious questions about Beijing’s commitment to a green Olympics.
The government reports daily pollution levels on the Internet, through the State Environmental Protection Agency and Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau Web sites. These agencies collect data from monitoring stations around the city and calculate an Air Pollution Index (API) indicating the potential harm to human health, with a range of 1-500. An API of 100 or less is a “blue sky” day. Annual targets for the number of “Blue Sky” days are set for Beijing and other major cities in China. On Jan. 1, the government announced “blue sky” days had improved to 246 last year, up from 100 in 1998. The news was widely reported inside and outside of China.
What wasn’t reported, though, was a change in collection methods. The Beijing API is an average of data from selected monitoring stations. From 1998 to 2005, the same seven stations — located in the city center — were used to measure air quality. These stations monitored areas with different characteristics, including high traffic areas, plus residential, commercial and industrial districts. In 2006, however, just as international scrutiny on China’s air quality was increasing, two stations monitoring traffic were dropped from the city API calculations, while three additional stations in less polluted areas were added.
Calculating the average daily Beijing API values for 2006 and 2007 using data from the original monitoring stations changes the outcome considerably; in fact, 38 of Beijing’s 241 so-called “blue sky” days in 2006 would not have qualified as “blue sky” under the old methodology. The number is even less for 2007: 55 fewer days would have attained the “blue sky” standard, out of 246 reported “blue sky” days. That translates into fewer “blue sky” days as a whole than in 2002 (which had 203 reported “blue sky” days), immediately after Beijing was awarded the Olympics, and casts grave doubt on China’s reported five straight years of continuous air quality improvement.
The government also substituted in less stringent measures of pollution. Beginning in June 2000, measurements of nitrogen dioxide were substituted into the air quality calculations in place of measurements of nitrogen oxides. The new standard for nitrogen dioxide was much less stringent than the old standard for nitrogen oxides, which were the worst pollutant (in terms of number of weeks exceeding air quality standards) before 2000. Since then, not a single day has exceeded the standard, thanks to the new, more easily attainable criteria. Although a lack of daily data during this time period prevents a reworking of “blue sky” days based on these measures, the reported annual average concentration of neither nitrogen dioxide nor particulates improved between 1998 and 2002. Annual average pollution levels are one of the most commonly used scientific measurements of air quality.
Even if one uses the provided pollution statistics, the numbers don’t stack up. The likelihood of an API just below (API 96-100) or just above (API 101-105) the “blue sky” boundary should be approximately equal. But China’s results don’t correspond to that statistical rule. In 2001, Beijing had 34 days where measures for fine particulate, airborne particles of 10 micrometers or less (PM10), were near the blue sky boundary, and approximately half were reported as “blue sky” days. In 2006, 49 days had fine particulate values equivalent to an API between 96 and 105, and 98% of those were reported as “blue sky” days. Reported data for 2007 indicates a similar bias near the “blue sky” boundary.
In China, everything is about appearances. So you find hotels with palatial facades and ratty interiors, industrial combines with enormous production and sales volume but toxic amounts of bad debt, and so on.
Fortunately, Beijing’s environmental statistics are readily falsifiable. A foreigner can walk around Beijing for all of 1 minute and know that Beijing is one of the most polluted places on the planet, regardless of what the official statistics say.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the Chinese economy.
When you are an outsider looking into a complex system, you are a lot better off examining “primal,” “blink” indicators — how socially secure the leaders are, how trustworthy they are, what their motivations are, what their respective time horizons are — as opposed to taking their data seriously.