Access to full smog data still out of sight
The heated debate over public access to key smog-monitoring data has taken another turn, with the mainland's top environment official putting a damper on hopes that more complete standards are imminent.
The remarks by Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian at an international seminar on Tuesday are the clearest sign to date explaining why the central government is dragging its heels on a commitment it has made repeatedly since the 2008 Olympics to improve transparency and outdated pollution standards.
Analysts say Zhou's disappointing remarks also underscore the wide expectation gap between mainland authorities and a public that is increasingly worried about air quality.
'We are still studying and revising [pollution monitoring] standards concerning air quality, in a bid to bring them in line with international standards,' the China Business News quoted Zhou as saying. 'But it will have to be a step-by-step process and cannot be accomplished overnight.'
The minister admitted that the conspicuous absence of smog-related fine particles, known as PM2.5 (airborne particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter), in the outdated pollution standards was largely to blame for discrepancies between public unease and official statistics.
The ministry yesterday announced revised draft rules for public consultation that add PM2.5 to measure air quality nationwide, among other revisions. An official from its standards department said the new rules would be implemented in 2016, but may be adopted sooner in some regions, according to a statement on the ministry website. It would also urge local governments to voluntarily bring in the new rules earlier.
Major mainland cities have frequently been hit by thick, choking smog in recent months, prompting public anger at the government's inability to curb pollution and widespread scepticism over official pollution data which shows positive air-quality figures even on smoggy days.
In the capital, which was shrouded in a thick blanket of smog yet again yesterday - with a popular pollution reading from the US embassy describing air quality as 'dangerous' to the entire population - the local environmental watchdog said air quality was only 'slightly polluted' by national standards. Both Premier Wen Jiabao and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang also made rare admissions at the same seminar that the mainland's decade-old air pollution standards need an urgent overhaul to meet public expectations.
PM2.5 is believed to pose greater health risks than bigger particles from dust and soot and can cause serious respiratory problems and even lung cancer, according to the World Health Organisation.
Peking University expert Zhang Yuanhang said that the inclusion of PM2.5 would mean a drop of up to 80 per cent in the number of 'blue-sky' days recorded for many mainland cities, which would fuel public dissatisfaction, the Guangzhou Daily reported yesterday.
It is no secret that many mainland cities are technically capable of monitoring PM2.5 and have been doing so for years, but the public is yet to get access to such data.
Additional reporting by Staff Reporter