4 February 2014, 03:06

Major breakthrough in China's war on bad air: Beijing makes air pollution data public

Major breakthrough in China's war on bad air: Beijing makes air pollution data public

China’s Communist state is hardly known for its transparency. So when environmental groups appealed to the government last year to disclose official data on air pollution, they were not expecting much.

“Way beyond our expectations, the government actually said yes,” said Ma Jun, head of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing. “I am quite amazed.”

Since Jan. 1, the central government has required 15,000 factories — including influential state-run enterprises — to publicly report details on their air emissions and water discharges in real time, an unprecedented degree of disclosure that is shedding light on the who, what, when and where of China’s devastating environmental problems.

The reporting requirement is part of a striking turnaround by China’s government, which is also publishing data on the sootiest cities and trying to limit the use of coal. The country’s appalling air is blamed for more than a million premature deaths a year, for producing acid rain that damages the nation’s agriculture, for driving away tourists and even for encouraging the brightest students to study abroad. Perhaps just as important, Beijing’s bad air has been making its Communist leaders lose face.

Cleaning up China’s bad air will take years, even in the best of circumstances. The economy is dependent on coal, and there are many powerful interests involved. But activists say the new steps could at least represent the beginning of change.

Linda Greer of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington says the reporting requirement for factories is the “biggest thing” China has done to address its pollution problems, and the most likely to produce results.

“It brings them from the back of the pack globally, in terms of public information disclosure, to the front of the pack,” Greer added by telephone. “Inevitably it will strengthen the hand of regulators when they have bad air pollution days, to look at real-time data.”

Everyone knew that heavy industry around Beijing was responsible for much of the capital’s bad air, but few people fully appreciated the scale of the problem. The ministry’s rankings showed that seven of the 10 most polluted cities in China in 2013 were in Hebei province, which surrounds the capital and is the center of the nation’s steel industry, as well as being a major glass, coke and cement producer.

The data made one conclusion inescapable: Beijing’s pollution would never be tackled unless Hebei’s heavy industry was either cleaned up or shut down.

The data disclosure was part of a new resolve in China’s government to confront its environmental problems, which have increasingly been the subject of protests.

In September, the Chinese government unveiled a $280 billion plan to improve air quality, including limiting coal use and banning high-polluting vehicles. Under the plan, the Beijing-Tianjan-Hebei area is required to cut concentrations of PM2.5 fine particles by 25 percent by 2017.

Voice of Russia, Washington Post

    and share via