The Debate

To Tweet, or Not to Tweet?

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The Debate

To Tweet, or Not to Tweet?

The Chinese government wants the U.S. to stop announcing its own air pollution readings. Should it?

I’m back in the U.S. after a break in the U.K. spent mostly in London. The U.K. was, unsurprisingly, awash with Union Jack flags with the Jubilee celebrations and the city’s preparations for the Olympics later this summer (with a few England flags thrown in for good measure for football’s European championship, which kicks off in Poland and Ukraine shortly).

During my first trip to Beijing, back in early 2006, that city was also preparing to host the Olympics, and although the games were still a couple of years away, I lost count of the number of locals who would ask if I was coming back for the Olympics. London certainly has a tough act to follow in terms of spectacle, but one thing it won’t be as concerned about is pollution.

Much has been written about the air quality problems facing Beijing, which was desperate to improve the situation ahead of the 2008 games. Throughout my first trip there, the air was thick with a grayish brown haze that at times was almost like a fairly dense fog. But it was there every day. My Chinese guide told me that many schoolchildren in Beijing rarely ever draw the blue skies ubiquitous in Western school kids’ sketches because they barely ever see one. One of my traveling companions, who traveled with me from Tokyo, found herself almost constantly short of breath outside. She’s asthmatic, but had no difficulty at all breathing in Tokyo.

The authorities did have some success heading into the Olympics, but as we noted last year, Beijing has in recent months been experiencing levels of air pollution considered highly dangerous in many other nations.

The figures in recent years speak for themselves. Late last year, the World Health Organization released readings from about 1,100 cities around the world of the annual mean concentration of fine particulate matter (specifically, particles smaller than 10). Cities in North America scored well, although London also had a (relatively) respectable mean between 2003 and 2010 of 29 ug/m3, which compared with New York’s 21 ug/m3, Paris’s 38 and Berlin’s 26. Beijing’s reading, in contrast, was 121.

That the reading was so high won’t come as any surprise to anyone that lives in the city. The problem is that many argue even this reading understates the magnitude of the problem, as PM 2.5 (the measure used by the U.S.) is believed to pose the largest health risks because particles this size can be absorbed into the lungs and blood.

With this in mind, the U.S. Embassy regularly announces its own, PM 2.5 readings, on Twitter. It has been releasing its own results for a number of years, and the readings made international headlines in December when it reported that the pollution was “beyond index.”

But China has made clear today that it’s really not happy about this approach. Speaking to reporters today, Vice Environmental Minister Wu Xiaoqing said that only the Chinese government is authorized to monitor and publish air quality information.

“The government appears frustrated that there are now dueling readings for air quality and that the U.S. readings underscore the fact that pollution levels considered unhealthy in the U.S. are classified as good by China,” AP reported. “Wu said it isn’t fair to judge Chinese air by American standards because China is a developing country and noted that U.S. environmental guidelines have become more stringent over time…(He) also said that air quality monitoring by foreign diplomats was inconsistent with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and urged diplomats to abide by China's laws and regulations.”

So, should the U.S. be publishing its own results? It’s understandable that the U.S. wants to put pressure on China to improve air quality standards, although I do think there’s at least an argument to be made that having a foreign government tweeting its own readings in such a public way is maybe unnecessarily embarrassing and perhaps even counterproductive in trying to elicit change. Still, as AP also notes, “local Chinese have used the U.S. readings to prod their government into publishing more detailed pollution data.”

For the record, though, Beijing’s air pollution is far from the worst in the world, according to the WHO. The dubious distinction of worst air quality goes to the Iranian city of Ahwaz, where the reading was 372 ug/m3. Iran had 14 cities registering readings exceeding 100 ug/m3, compared with 16 in China, a country with a population almost 20 times bigger than the Islamic Republic’s.