Yesterday our climate and energy campaigner Zhou Rong appeared on the BBC to talk about China's recent public displeasure over foreign embassies (uh, namely the US embassy) publishing its own set of air-quality readings. Head here to hear the entire thing, starting from around 6.30 minute mark, or read the transcript below:
Foreign embassies in Beijing have been told to stop publishing their own air pollution readings in the Chinese capital. The deputy environment minister said the practice is both illegal and against diplomatic conventions. The U.S. embassy publishes daily air pollution readings. It says they're for the benefit of their own staff and for other US citizens who are living in China. And it is understood that the embassy does not intend to stop publishing them.
Well this Beijing resident who didn't want us to use his name tells me that he never trusts the official readings published by the Chinese government.
"Before the US published the air quality reading, people in Beijing, they don't trust the official figures of the air pollution. Because you can't trust one that lies to you everyday. And after the US embassy started to publish the figures people follow the figures, they trust the figures from the US embassy rather than the official figures. And between the two figures there is a very big gap. Sometimes the official figure says weather is fine but the figures from the embassy is quite bad. People complain because no one really trusts the official figures."
Do you look at the figures yourself on a regular basis?
"I have an app on my smartphone. And that app automatically downloads readings every day."
Do you find it useful at all? I mean you can just look out the window and see what it looks like, can't you?
"Yes, but sometimes you can see it's quite smoggy, the grey sky, you know the weather is bad, but you don't know how bad it is. So the ratings helps you understand how terrible is the air pollution."
Does it help you to modify your behaviour in any way? Do you decide not to go out if the reading from the US embassy is particularly high?
"Yeah, for example I have a two-year-old son, and if the rating in the US embassy is quite bad and it says it's hazardous, I will stop my son from going out and just stay at home. I have an air purifier in my home. Sometimes when the rating is quite bad I start to use the mask."
That was a resident in Beijing. I've also been talking to Zhou Rong of the environmental campaign group Greenpeace in Beijing. I asked her why she thinks the authorities want embassies to stop publishing their air quality readings.
"I think today the Chinese government feels humiliated by the US readings, but actually what needs to be saved is not the government's face, but China's air quality. China's government must stop finger pointing and need to take real action to solve the air pollution."
Is there a significant difference between what, for example, the US embassy says and what the Chinese government says about air quality?
"I've actually observed the data, and the US PM2.5 readings are quite similar to China Beijing's PM2.5 readings. But how to interpret it is quite different. Because the public can't really understand the meaning of microgram per cubic metres. And they refer to the air quality index. And the US embassy data use the air quality index based on hourly data. And that's quite weird because even in the US consulate they have data in the daily basis and we all know the air quality is fluctuating on a daily basis so if you use the hourly data it will have a little bit distortion of the real air quliaty.
At the same time, China's data is based on the air pollution index on the average of PM10. Also just cover the real PM2.5 air pollution. So there's some gaps of the readings that confuses the public."
Anyone who's been in Beijing knows that some days the air quality is absolutely dreadful, you care barely see across the street, you can see the air is a dirty yellow isn't it? But what's the reason for it? Why is there so much pollution in Beijing?
"Firstly I'd like to point out air pollution isn't just a Beijing issue. It's actually a regional issue. The PM2.5 issue covers the whole eastern coast of china. So the reason for the air pollution is the over-reliance on coal consumption. We all know China consumes almost half of the world's coal. And now it's still expanding. We had a 9.5% increase last year."
Do you think the government has any plans to do anything about this? It's said in the past that it does recognise it has to deal with pollution.
"Yes, and what makes us a little disappointed is today, for the first time, the Chinese government has admitted that we do have real PM2.5 air pollution but they still failed to propose a clear action plan. Like how can we improve? When can we have good air quality? And also they failed to give a very ambitious action plan to control the coal pollution. The air pollution cannot be solved if coal expansion is not stopped."