In what could prove a significant step in terms of transparency and responsiveness over environmental monitoring in China, officials in Beijing have announced that they will allow members of the public to visit the city’s pollution monitoring center.
The move comes as frustration has grown over what has seemed to locals to be a discrepancy between the official air pollution readings and the reality on the ground.
At present, Beijing’s environmental bureau releases data on pollutants with a diameter greater than 10 micrometers. However, this decision has come in for heavy criticism from environmentalists who argue that the more dangerous smaller particles (less than 2.5 micrometers) aren’t included in the daily publicly released readings.
The problems for city officials have been compounded by the fact that the U.S. Embassy releases regular updates on air quality in Beijing that include the smaller particles, updates that often significantly differ from the city’s official readings. On October 9, for example, the U.S. Embassy stated that its reading was “beyond index,” meaning that pollution exceeded any rating on the scale. The reading, according to one air quality expert, is something that couldn’t occur in the United States unless you were “downwind from a forest fire.”
The same day, Beijing city officials described the city’s air as “slightly polluted.”
"The air pollution in Beijing is so terrible right now there are days when I feel I can't breathe,” says Xueqin Jiang, a high school teacher in Beijing and contributor to The Diplomat. “I usually try to escape Beijing for a few days during the month, or otherwise I feel I'll become overwhelmed by the air pollution, the noise pollution, the traffic congestion, the cold weather."
Frustrated by the discrepancies in the official and U.S. readings, celebrity property developer Pan Shiyi launched an online poll on his microblog asking if the city should adopt the U.S. standard for measuring pollution. Pan’s blog has 7 million followers and within days tens of thousands of people had registered their votes, with the vast majority – more than 95 percent – so far calling for the stricter readings to be adopted.
The environmental bureau has responded by allowing 40 people to tour the monitoring once a week, a move that is significant less for its practical usefulness as for the fact that it shows city officials are willing to respond positively to public unrest.
The move also marks the first time that the local government has opened the doors of watchdog to individual guests since it was opened in 1974.
“We want the public to see how we work and further convince the public of the sincerity of our efforts and improve our environmental awareness,” said Wang Xiaoming, spokesman for the bureau, according to China Daily.
According to the paper, “guests on the tours will be taken around the center to see how workers there collect, analyze and release air-quality data. The bureau said they are invited to ask experts questions during the tour.”
The city also held out the prospect that it could eventually adopt the U.S. standard for measuring pollution.
“According to Wei Qiang, an engineer at the monitoring center, 27 monitoring stations have been established throughout the city to collect data about nitric oxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, PM 10 (particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter) and other pollutants. Workers in the center's central equipment room later analyze those data and arrange to have them released to the public,” China Daily reported.
“We have also established monitoring stations that analyze the city's pollutant intensity for PM 2.5 and PM 1,” Wei is quoted as saying. “The data will be released in the future, when the city adopts a PM 2.5 standard.”