When I lived in Beijing, we often had a weather forecast that was just one word: Smoke! It was usually in the fall, when the peasants in the surrounding provinces of Shandong and Hebei were burning the fields after harvest. The city would be shrouded in smoke, with off-the-charts bad air quality until it rained or the winds shifted to the north.
On Monday it was Minnesota’s turn. Smoke from wildfires burning in northern Saskatchewan descended on our fair state, making the air quality in Minneapolis worse than in Beijing.
This story, written by Adrienne Mong, focuses on the economic and health effects of our smog and the growing increasingly political nature of measuring air quality in Beijing. You see, the US Embassy monitors air quality in the capital and publishers their readings hourly on Twitter. It almost always hovers between “unhealthy” and “hazardous.” Sometimes it literally goes off the chart and the Twitter feed labels it “crazy bad,” at which point the Chinese government gets crazy mad and the laobaixing (common people) get crazy sad. Some have even speculated that this is what triggered the blocking of Twitter in China.Who knows?
Anyway, here are some of the key graphs from the article:
Earlier this month, a U.S. study on the economic impact of China’s air pollution was released with little fanfare. Maybe it was because of the series of successive “blue sky” days we were enjoying in the Chinese capital, thanks to the gusty winds blowing down from Mongolia.
The conclusion? “[D]espite improvements in overall air quality,” the cost of air pollution (as in lost economic productivity growth) in China has mushroomed from $22 billion in 1975 to $112 billion in 1995. But for at least one pair of 29-year old software engineers in Beijing, air pollution has actually meant greater economic productivity and a business opportunity.
Mong then goes on to write about the battle discrepancy between the US embassy and Chinese government readings (illustrated in the picture above):
The readings come from an air quality monitor that sits on top of the embassy in downtown Beijing, and they differ sharply from the daily results posted by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP).
AQI values on @BeijingAir range from 0 to 500. A “good” AQI is 0 to 50 or what the Chinese call a “blue sky” day. Unfortunately, many days in 2011 qualified as “unhealthy” to “hazardous.” But on some of those same days, MEP data maintained the levels were “good” or “moderate.” (The Chinese, in fact, claim there were 286 “blue sky” days in 2011.)
“The [Beijing] government says that nearly 80 per cent of the days in the last two years met at least the Chinese standard and therefore had good or even excellent air quality,” Steve Andrews, an environmental consultant who has analyzed the @BeijingAir data, said. “While when we look at the U.S. embassy data … over 80 per cent days exceeded what would be considered healthy air quality and more days were hazardous than good.”
Andrews said that Beijing’s pollution levels were “six or seven times higher than the U.S.’s most polluted city.” “Air pollution at these levels likely shortens life expectancy by about five years,” he added.
Who are you going to believe? The government or your burning eyes? I’m going with the eyes.