Cablegate: Hazardous Air Days in Beijing

DE RUEHBJ #3179/01 3310858
P 270858Z NOV 09




E.O. 12958: N/A


REF: A. 2007 BEIJING 7110

This cable is sensitive but unclassified. Not for distribution
outside the United States Government.

1. (SBU) From November 5 through November 8, the Air Quality Index
(AQI), as measured by the Embassy's PM2.5 monitor, registered
"Hazardous," whereas the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau
(BEPB), which reports only PM10 readings, registered only "Lightly
Polluted" and "Moderately Polluted" conditions. In fact, the BEPD
just recently declared that Beijing had already met its target of
260 "Blue Sky Days." While the Chinese authorities do not report
PM2.5 figures, this obvious discrepancy in air quality assessments
points to an ongoing debate in Beijing on whether the air quality
has significantly improved over the past year. There is also
growing acknowledgement among Chinese academics and government
environment officials that data manipulation and lack of reporting
of serious pollutants make it difficult to obtain a clear picture of
how serious the air pollution problem really is. Until the
government formally recognizes the need for mroe accurate and
credible air quality data, Beijing residents will remain in the
unhealthy dark on the city's air quality. End Summary.
Four Hazardous Days in One Month
2. (SBU) From November 5 through November 8, the Air Quality Index
(AQI) from the Embassy's PM2.5 monitor registered the maximum
reading of 500. An AQI level above 300 is considered "Hazardous" by
EPA standards and dangerous air quality conditions such as this
would have normally triggered a health emergency in any U.S. city.
However, in Beijing, there were no such government notifications.
Despite heavy smog covering the city - which at times required the
daytime use of headlights while driving - the Ministry of
Environmental Protection (MEP) waited until November 8 to quietly
elevate the air quality grade from "Lightly Polluted" to "Moderately
Polluted" on its website.
PM2.5 Pollution Not a Secret: The Embassy Monitor
--------------------------------------------- ----
3. (SBU) For the 32 days from October 8 to November 8, 2009, BEPB's
recorded 24 hourly average PM10 readings presented a much more
positive picture of the air than the Embassy's PM2.5 monitor.
During this time, the BEPB recorded 19 "Blue Sky Days" (where the
Air Pollution Index (API) measurement is 100 or under). For this
same period, the Embassy recorded only 5 days where the air was
considered "Good" or "Moderate" according to EPA standards, with the
remainder being in the "Unhealthy" category. In addition, the
Embassy recorded 6 days at the "Hazardous" level, indicating that
there were more dangerous air days in Beijing during that month than
healthy days. Despite the Embassy's determination that Beijing's
air quality is usually "unhealthy" at best, the BEPB on November 20
proudly declared that Beijing had already met its 260 "Blue Sky Day"
target 41 days before the end of the year.
4. (SBU) While the Embassy's declared purpose for the monitor is to
provide for the health and safety of American citizens in Beijing,
another benefit of making the data available via Twitter is that the
monitor has become a useful guide for international residents in
Beijing to determine their daily activities. [NOTE: Twitter is
currently blocked to the Chinese public, though there is no lack of
creativity in getting around these prohibitions. The U.S. and other
countries' embassies do not use Chinese internet providers, and
therefore are able to view the site freely. END NOTE] ESTH has
been informed by other European Embassies that they regularly refer
to the U.S. Twitter site as well, and that several of them have
asked for funding to purchase their own monitors. [NOTE: ESTH has
since learned that the Finnish Embassy has a PM2.5 monitor, and is
finding the same discrepancies with its data versus the BEPB's data.

5. (SBU) The Chinese public only has access to the PM10 pollution
data provided by the BEPB. When it was reported in the press that
the US Embassy was publicizing its PM2.5 data, the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs called in ESTHOffs to complain that the differences
in data was "confusing" and potentially destabilizing [Ref. B].
However, ESTHOffs have learned that Chinese academics, scientists
and officials do unofficially monitor PM2.5 using their own
instruments, though they do not publicly publish the results.

Public Half-Truth: Air is improving

BEIJING 00003179 002 OF 003

6. (SBU) There have been numerous local and international press
reports touting Beijing's air quality improvements. Most recent was
an article in the November 21 issue of the China Daily that reported
the BEPB's reaching its 260 "Blue Sky Day" target early. An October
16 article in the NY Times also referenced the increasing number of
"Blue Sky Days" reported by the BEPB as evidence that Beijing's air
quality is improving. Beijing has indeed taken steps to improve air
quality, such as converting millions of home heating boilers from
coal to gas, moving factories farther from the city center,
establishing increasingly stringent vehicle emission standards,
taking vehicles off the road through an odd-even system, and
offering rebates for trading in older vehicles. While these changes
have undoubtedly made significant improvements to Beijing's air, the
stories of Beijing air quality improvement provide a misleading
7. (SBU) One reason the BEPB's claims of improving air quality lack
credibility is because its pollution index numbers are frequently
manipulated to meet annual quotas and performance standards [Ref.
A]. YU Jianhua, head of the environmental monitoring center for the
BEPB, recently admitted to engineering data to meet air quality
goals. During a July press conference, when answering a question
regarding the disproportionate number of days that fell within the
"Blue Sky" target, he admitted this was because the local government
used emergency measures such as closing down construction sites near
monitor locations on days when it expected pollution would exceed
Measuring the Wrong Pollutant
8. (SBU) Even if the numbers were not manipulated, they still do
not report the right information. China has developed and
implemented standards for PM10 pollution levels, while the
international standard is for PM2.5. China's PM10 standards are
also less stringent than WHO or other international standards.
PM2.5 is a finer particle that can deeply penetrate the lungs and is
more directly related to negative public health impacts and is also
the largest contributor to air visibility problems from smog.
9. (SBU) While the Chinese environmental authorities are capable of
measuring PM2.5 [Ref. B], China does not yet have national PM2.5
standards and therefore does not make PM2.5 data available. Since
only PM10 data is released, and there is good news about this part
of the air pollution story, an overly optimistic interpretation of
Beijing's air quality is a common misperception that is widely
Unofficial Understanding: The Air is Still Horrible
--------------------------------------------- ------
10. (U) In private meetings and public conferences that include
Chinese academics, government officials, and scientists, there is
broader agreement and understanding of the magnitude of the PM2.5
problem. In a presentation on October 23 at the International
Workshop on Vehicle Emission Control, TANG Dang, Director of the
Vehicle Emission Control Center of the Ministry of Environmental
Protection (MEP) identified PM2.5 emissions as a major pollutant
that is still causing "large damage to human health and requires
attention." On October 26 at the 5th Regional Air Quality
Management Conference (RAQM), WANG Ruibin of the National
Environment Monitoring Center said that PM2.5 is one of the most
important factors impacting air pollution in China. Professor CHAI
Fahe, from the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences,
also presented a graph displaying the "huge difference between the
API (Air Pollution Index) and visibility" for Beijing, which is
attributed to high levels of PM2.5 pollution. He noted that "the
air quality is getting better, but the status is still very
11. (SBU) In addition to the admission that more attention needs to
be paid to the problem of PM2.5 pollution, there is further
acknowledgement of a lack of capacity of China's air quality
monitoring system to properly evaluate air quality. During a
presentation at the RAQM, ZHONG Liuju from the Guangdong
Environmental Monitoring Center said that quality assurance and
quality control of the air quality monitoring systems is poor and
that published API is not consistent with residents' observations.
In a meeting with Embassy and EPA officials on October 26, Professor
QI Ye of Tsinghua University and Chief Representative of the China
Sustainable Energy Program for the Energy Foundation, stated that
with respect to the air quality monitoring system in China,
"everybody knows that the data is not reliable, not accurate, not
complete, and not available to the public or to each other."
Improvements Coming?

BEIJING 00003179 003 OF 003

12. (SBU) The consensus among academics and officials that China
needs to regulate more pollutants is leading to efforts to
incorporate a multi-pollutant control strategy in the 12th Five Year
Plan which will likely include PM2.5 standards. MA Jun, Director of
the Institute of Public and Environment Affairs, was quoted in the
November 21 China Daily article saying that he would like to see
PM2.5 particles included in China's measurement system because they
are more dangerous to people's health than PM10. Vice President HE
Kebin of Tsinghua University's Graduate School, in a presentation at
the RAQM, showed a graph of the trends of PM2.5 pollution from
1999-2006, and noted that not only are organic pollutants
increasing, but other pollutants such as NOx need to be addressed or
China risks undermining the gains made in SO2 and acid rain
reduction. This was echoed by WANG Ruibin of the National
Environment Monitoring Center and JIANG Chunlai from the Chinese
Academy for Environmental Planning. All presented a case for
including PM2.5 and strengthening the standards, monitoring,
verification and supervision of an enhanced system of air quality
management for the 12th Five Year Plan.
13. (SBU) In view of the Chinese authorities lack of PM2.5
reporting, the Embassy PM2.5 monitor fills a vital gap between the
official PM10 monitoring system and the un-publishable PM2.5
information, providing a much needed "reality check" on the
pollution situation in Beijing. The fact that the US Embassy has
only one air quality monitor in a single location and that it
measures different particulates from the BEPB monitoring system
allows enough "space" for Chinese officials to claim that the two
cannot be directly compared. At the same time, however, the
continuous flow of hourly data demonstrates how easy monitoring this
pollutant and reporting it to the public can be, quietly applying
pressure on the Chinese government to follow suit.

© Scoop Media

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