For nearly 15 years the Chinese government has been talking about improving the air quality in Beijing, and by its own measures it seems to have done a pretty good job.
Since the city launched a campaign in 1998 to clean up the atmosphere, the number of “blue sky days” recorded by the government increased each year until 2011, when it achieved a record 286 days with supposedly clean air, compared with 100 in 1998.
But as anyone who has lived for long in Beijing can attest, “blue sky” is a somewhat redundant concept when applied to the celestial capital.
Over the weekend, air pollution readings in the city were the worst since records began about four years ago, with the concentration of fine particulates reaching a level 75 times greater than that considered healthy under the latest US standards.
A thick layer of toxic fog blanketing Beijing for days blotted out the sun and disrupted traffic as residents were warned to stay inside and avoid any strenuous activity to minimise their exposure to the hazardous fumes.
Despite years of official rhetoric and a couple of years when there was a noticeable improvement, the air seems to be getting worse and could even present the new administration of Xi Jinping with a credibility crisis. Chinese and international experts say one of the biggest problems the government faces is the willingness of officials at all levels to sacrifice environmental concerns for the overriding imperative of economic growth.
A lack of accountability, the weakness of agencies tasked with tackling the issue and the ease with which data collection and presentation is manipulated all compound the problem.
“China’s national leaders have ordered an improvement in air quality but thanks to misreporting and manipulation of data at the lower levels, they often aren’t aware of the severity of the problem,” says Steven Andrews, an environmental consultant who exposed official manipulation of air pollution data in Beijing in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games.
“For lower-level officials, they can often get the same results by manipulating the data as they do by enforcing emissions standards.”
Since enforcing these standards means confronting powerful state enterprises and power producers – many of which have emissions-treatment equipment installed but choose not to use it because of costs – many officials prefer to massage the numbers, Mr Andrews says.
Chinese scientists who have conducted independent studies on air quality say all sorts of tricks are used by the authorities in order to provide data that show improvements.
These range from blatantly changing the readings to putting city air monitoring stations in places where pollution levels are lowest, such as in parks.
Another problem is that China’s definition of unhealthy pollution levels seems designed to downplay the issue – the highest concentration of toxic particulates regarded as “excellent” in China is three times higher than the US considers healthy.
That many Beijing residents are even aware the “fog”?they?breathe is bad for them already marks a huge leap forward compared with just one year ago.
Galapagos environmental emergency
The government in Ecuador has declared an emergency in the Galapagos islands. A ship carrying petrol which got stuck on the rocks last week may still carry a threat to the island group’s plants and animals.
The petrol tanker became stranded off the island of San Cristobal on Friday. But despite having emptied the ship’s cargo, the authorities fear that some remaining pollutants, like motor oil, could spill over and cause environmental damage.
They said they’re working to remove the vessel. This is not the first ship accident in the Galapagos. In 2001, another stranded petrol tanker spilled fuel and decimated marine life.
The Galapagos are home to unique animals such as the giant tortoise, the marine iguana and the flightless cormorant. The archipelago is also known for its endemic finches, which were studied in the 1830s by the British scientist Charles Darwin. He went on to publish On the Origin of Species, his revolutionary book on evolution.