Monday, 31 December 2012

True Air Quality Readings

January 1 will see the start of a new year, new resolutions and regulations in place.

On Tuesday, 74 mainland cities will begin issuing real-time air quality updates which will make it much harder for local officials to manipulate data when it comes to China's worsening air pollution.

Hourly readings will be made and will report on three more pollutants than currently are, including ozone and smog-causing fine particles, and increase standards for other pollutants: sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and large particulate matter.

The changes in reporting air quality were announced by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, which said data collected from 496 monitoring sites would be available online and on smartphone apps.

While the steps towards greater transparency is great, environmental experts say the public will start to see a huge discrepancy between reports now and January 1 onwards.

They warn that with the higher standards, there will be a sudden decline in air quality ratings in many cities and it'll be harder for officials to declare a blue-sky day when the air is considered good.

In an interesting admission, Zhao Hualin, the ministry's director of pollution prevention said recently that about 70 percent of mainland cities would fail to meet the new standard for PM2.5 -- microscopic airborne particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter. PM2.5 particles can cause serious health risks because they can enter the bloodstream and stay deep in the lungs.

So while there may be greater transparency, what is the point of giving more readings when governments are not explicitly told to fix their air pollution problems? The initiative seems rather half-baked. So while it's good to finally give the public the true readings of the air, what are local authorities going to do about it?

But there are still some loopholes with more frequent readings -- Zhu Jianping, the ministry's deputy director of monitoring, told the Southern Weekly that some municipal governments had purposely distorted their readings to make their air quality readings appear worse so that they could get pollution treatment funding from Beijing.

Hopefully the media will follow up on these particular cities to see if any efforts are made to reduce pollution. Or perhaps we could assume the funding may end up on the casino tables in Macau?

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