What’s Going On With Beijing’s Air Quality?

Beijing’s poor air quality earlier this month, akin to what was routinely seen in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s, garnered global headlines. Both Chinese and international press have focused on the differences in monitoring between China’s air quality index and a monitor for small particulates located at the US Embassy in Beijing.

China Compared to a Very Recent US Standard

What is often missed in this discussion is that the US Embassy’s widely accessed Twitter feed is using an air quality standard that did not come into effect in the US until 2007. In fact, the US did not adopt standards for these small particulates (PM 2.5)i until the late 1990s and the first measurements were not collected until after 2000. Enforcement began only half a decade ago. European enforcement of its standard (less stringent than both the US and the WHO) has only just begun, with data collection beginning in 2008. As one US expert commented to me this week, we need to distinguish between the real progress the Chinese have made in the last decade, and the significant distance they need to go to reach healthy air quality for all of China’s residents.

Looking to Implement New Environmental Goals

Last week saw both cleaner air and a rich discussion of how to better address air pollution challenges in the context of China’s 12th Five Year Plan goals. At a meeting co-hosted by the Chinese Ministry of the Environment (MEP) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), China’s Vice Minister for Environment Zhang Lijun frankly stated that China’s air pollution standards are “relatively loose.” He and other speakers at the Regional Air Quality Management (RAQM) meeting noted that many Chinese cities exceed even China’s national standards and even more exceed World Health Organization (WHO) standards.

EPA officials and speakers from cities like Los Angeles spoke about the forty-year evolution of US air quality standards and enforcement. US standards have been raised numerous times and US cities have been given as long as twenty years to comply with new standards. In fact, while Los Angeles has made dramatic progress in its smog control, the speaker from one of its enforcement districts also noted that it has yet to actually meet the most modern standards.

This evolution in standards and understanding of environmental risks is important to put China’s progress thus far and where it needs to go in context. The recent press discussion of PM 2.5 has not addressed the types of air quality measures that reduce these small particulates, which include the control of sulfates, nitrogen oxides, black carbon and volatile organic compounds.

Controlling the Causes of Small Particulate Pollution

The reader may note that two of these areas are exactly where China has been focusing its attention. Sulfates are produced by sulfur dioxide emissions. Controlling SO2 was the top priority of Chinese air pollution policy in the previous five years and an ongoing area of effort. China’s goal in this five year plan is to remove over 90% of sulfur emissions from coal-fired power plants. Nitrogen oxide control is a major added goal in the 12th Five Year Plan. New requirements for NOx control extend to power plants, cement kilns, industrial boilers and vehicles.

In 2010 China also brought in a major new regional air quality management program similar to the US EPA’s various multistate programs. The Chinese program focuses on China’s three largest metropolitan areas: Beijing/Tianjin, the Yangtze River Delta (around Shanghai), and the Pearl River Delta (the triangle defined by Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau). Both haze and smog were specifically mentioned in the new regulations, and at this conference it was clear that Chinese specialists both in MEP’s affiliated research institutes and at prominent universities have been hard at work developing the actual standards and programs needed to reduce both PM 2.5 and ground level ozone.

The major news from this conference, broadcast November 10 on Chinese national television, was that the conference discussed how to bring in new standards for both volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and PM 2.5 in the context of this requirement for regional air quality management.

VOCs are key contributors to both ground-level ozone (generally known as smog) and PM 2.5 (which is what the Chinese are calling haze). Ground-level ozone is produced through a chemical reaction involving both NOx (which already is a target in the 12th Five Year Plan) and VOCs. The complexity is that both NOx and VOCs need to be reduced in a balanced way, which varies depending on local atmospheric conditions. A senior expert from Beijing University showed that in Beijing, for example, the reduction programs need to be tailored differently for the city center and the suburbs, because of different relative amounts of the two pollutants. VOCs also produce small particulates through a different chemical reaction.

The other complexity of VOC control is that it comes from many sources. As the Chinese moved from sulfur control, which has focused mainly on power plants, to NOx control, where vehicles are also important, they added a new level of complexity. Adding VOCs and PM 2.5 to their sites adds multiple industries that need to be regulated, including chemicals and solvents as well as VOCs from vehicles.

Chai Fahe, the Vice President of the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences (CRAES), a key institute under MEP, told me that these new regulations for VOCs and PM 2.5 will be implemented in the target regions within this Five Year Plan (2011-2015).

What about the Data?

Researchers presented detailed and impressive studies during this conference, and also made it clear that capacity building at the local level is one of the key issues for implementing these new programs. Taizhou city in wealthy Zhejiang province presented an already-implemented pilot for controlling VOCs. Guangdong discussed its advanced regional air pollution reporting system. Part of the challenge for China is in extending these programs to more areas. These are data collection challenges that the US and Europe only managed recently.

But we also heard that the quality of the data that is collected is quite high. Daniel Greenbaum, the President of the Boston-based Health Effects Institute, which has sponsored impressive studies of the health impacts of pollution in China, said his organization sends quality assurance and quality control specialists to examine the data that they use in their collaborative studies and that it has all passed their criteria. The current issue is that not all that information has been made publicly available. Chinese participants in the meeting said that data would be published when new standards come into place. Data transparency is a major issue in China, but it is a separate issue from accuracy.

It is worth noting that much more data is available now in Beijing than was only a year ago. If you visit the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau’s Chinese website, there is a city map on the right-hand side. Clicking on any of the districts brings up separate readings for each monitoring station within the district. This was a program that aired briefly during the Olympics and then disappeared for a while. It now appears to be a regular feature.

There also seems to be a misapprehension about expert opinion on the quality of the data currently available from the MEP and local bureaus. All the American participants at the conference I spoke with felt the Chinese data was accurate. The issues are whether there is a PM 2.5 standard and whether standards for other pollutants are stringent enough, not whether measurement is accurate. The Vice Minister himself said he felt Chinese standards were loose. The news from the conference is that MEP appeared energized and interested in pushing ahead not only with new standards, but with active implementation.

Update on Monday, November 21, 2011

Just last week the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) announced public consultation for new regulations that would establish a standard for small particulate matter (PM 2.5), an important public health advance. China’s official media outlet Xinhua reported the new standard, which MEP proposes bringing into effect nationwide by 2016, and that Shanghai believes its monitoring capacity is sufficiently ahead of this timeline to implement as early as next year. We have heard elsewhere that Beijing, too, is likely to move earlier than 2016. MEP’s announcement and an FAQ describing the policy are already on the web in Chinese, but the English-language website has not yet been updated. The Xinhua report also noted the importance of public pressure in bringing about environmental improvements.

If enacted, the new standards would be in line with WHO interim-1 recommendations, which suggest a four-stage phase-in process for developing countries implementing PM 2.5 standards. As discussed last week, PM 2.5 is not controlled directly, but rather by controlling the precursor chemicals that create PM 2.5 through chemical reactions. New regulation in the 12th Five Year Plan, including additional control of SO2 (begun in the 11th Five Year Plan), new controls on NOx, and new Regional Air Quality Management regulations, provide policymakers with a number of new tools for addressing this issue.

i PM 2.5 refers to particles found in the air that are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. Particles of this size are believed to pose the largest health risks due to their size, according to the EPA. This realization in the 1990s changed environmental regulations, which had previously regulated only larger particulates.

Image courtesy of dtraleigh and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.