China Ink

Clearing the air

Environmental regulators in US monitoring fury

Why has PM2.5 flared up as an issue again?

Largely because the Ministry of Environmental Protection has asked embassies to stop publishing PM2.5 data, saying the action violates diplomatic treaties. The main focus appears to be the US, whose embassy has been monitoring and publishing the data – often at variance with official Chinese pollution numbers – on its Twitter account.

The Global Times was relatively sanguine on the issue, except for implying that embassy officials were only reporting the ‘bad’ pollution scores so that they could ask for higher pay.

International media enjoyed the irony of the Chinese authorities choosing the United Nation’s World Environment Day to voice their grievances, but generally disagreed the US embassy reporting contravened diplomatic conventions.

This was another classic own goal from the Chinese authorities, agreed James Fallows in The Atlantic magazine. “The country is better than this,” he lamented. “So does that mean we’re interfering in other countries’ internal affairs when we broadcast the global weather forecast?” added one local blogger, cheekily.

Not a new issue, but not fair on China either?

21CN Business Herald has been noting discrepancies between the official data and US sources for a while. In the capital, air quality at some points last winter was even labelled as “beyond the index” by the Americans yet Beijing officials said there was nothing to be overly worried about, the newspaper noted.

But Beijing News thought it wasn’t fair to assess air quality from one location as the US embassy was doing, especially as New York has 20 monitoring sites for PM2.5, and London 31.

TIME magazine reported that China has been complaining privately about the US monitoring since 2009, when it first warned that it might cause public confusion or lead to “social consequences”, according to a cable released by Wikileaks.

But the US says it has to release the information under an internal rule put in place after the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. Back then the State Department had information that a flight might be attacked but shared it only within US embassies rather than the wider public.

But disagreements continue…

At least there is recognition that the former standards need updating, says the China Daily. Beijing’s classification system previously graded days with low pollution as “blue sky” quality and the city enjoyed 286 ‘blue sky days’ last year, according to a report issued on World Environment Day. But with stricter standards now being employed across more monitoring locations, the time had come to drop that term, the newspaper suggested. The public was now mature enough to deal with less simplistic measures of air pollution.

The international media was more bothered by a new study from Nature Climate Change suggesting that pollution reported by China’s provinces far exceeds the total given at national level. “China could be hiding a whole Japan’s worth of carbon emissions” was the alarmist take from the Washington Post.

Another worrying story came from Wuhan, where an acrid fog has been hanging over the city. Xinhua has blamed straw burning by local farmers but residents seem to doubt it. “In 31 years in Wuhan I have never known anything like it. We are very worried because we do not know what it is,” one citizen told Associated Press.


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