Beijing's air quality in the early morning hours of November 2, 2013, as pictured by China Air Daily.
Has China's air been getting even worse recently? The evidence is in the photos.
A few years ago, a small team, including staff from the Asia Society, created a website called China Air Daily, which lets people see up-to-date photographs of the air in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. The reason? Air quality is “one of peoples’ top daily concerns,” says Michael Zhao, one of the creators.
The project has taken on an increasing sense of urgency in the last few months as China’s air pollution has reached terrifying new levels. Last week, a blanket of chemical smog crushed the northeastern metropolis of Harbin, shutting down the city’s schools and airports. Measurements showed fine particulate matter (PM2.5) levels exceeding 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter – more than 40 times the WHO’s safety limit. This follows Beijing’s “airpocalypse” in January, when the PM2.5 levels hit 866 per cubic meter.
In response, China Air Daily will soon begin updating photographs every hour, allowing users to get a true real-time look at Chinese air pollution. Asia Blog spoke to Zhao to get his insights.
Tell us about the China Air Daily project.
We started in 2007 — it was just me asking a friend to take a picture out of her apartment window. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it, but then the Olympics was gearing up and people were concerned about air pollution, so we set up a website. The air got better during the games, then people just moved on and didn’t pay any more attention. But I kept taking the pictures. The air got worse in 2010-2011, to the point where it’s now a domestic concern because Chinese people are concerned, instead of just a bunch of foreigners making a fuss.
Lately, we’ve set up a camera with a card that can automatically transfer pictures via wifi — it’ll do everything by itself. It’ll pull a new picture every hour. It’ll pull the data from the U.S. Embassy, from the Chinese government. The thing is, our site is really slow in China. We’re not sure if we’re going to move the servers to China because they may just take it down. They don’t like it.
In terms of physical sensation, what does it actually feel like to walk around on a polluted day?
Different people have different tolerances. I remember when I went to China the air was really bad, and my throat felt it after a day or two. But I was still okay. I know some people might wake up at night if the pollution’s really bad. I’ve never felt that way. There are some people who get really, really sick if there’s even a little pollution. There are some people who have never had a problem at all.
That’s why to me, the visual aspect [of the photographs] is interesting. Some days, you can see the mountains 20 miles away, and some days, you cannot see across the block.
How are average Chinese people reacting to the worsening air?
I think air has probably become one of people’s top daily concerns over the last year or few months. It’s gotten so bad, that whenever there is a blue sky day, people go out and take pictures. In a way, a blue sky has become a tourist attraction in Beijing … for locals! That’s something I find really interesting.
China unveiled a plan last month to cut coal use in the industrial north, and to reduce air pollution by 20 percent in Beijing over the next five years. Should we feel hopeful about this?
No. Even if they achieve a 20 percent reduction in five years, Beijing still sucks. It’s not going to make a huge difference. It’d be like if Fukushima hit Japan, and they said, “Let’s cut the radiation by 20 percent.” Come on! 20 percent is nothing. That’s how I view it. I mean, I appreciate their concern and their seriousness, but 20 percent is a no-goal.
How are environmental activists like Ma Jun trying to combat pollution?
I think he has a really interesting model: one of his great successes is collecting the available information on pollution and putting it out the public so that companies, especially multinationals, feel the pressure. Let’s say if a supplier to Walmart is on the list of polluting companies, then that company will feel the pressure because then Walmart can call the company and say, “Hey, I won’t do business with you.” And that’s what actually happens when he does the name and shame. He has all this data that pushes companies to behave.
Though, some Chinese companies don’t deal with multinationals, so they don’t feel as much pressure. It’ll be hard to clean everything up.
What is something interesting you've learned from running China Air Daily?
When some problem gets really bad, the Chinese government will listen. And I think this is one of the areas where it has. I sympathize with the government in that it’s not 100 percent their fault. It’s the whole path that China has embarked upon. The industrialization is like what the West did more than 70 years ago — China is basically making the same mistakes, but on a larger scale. I don’t know if they’ll achieve their goal of cleaning up the air, but I hope they will.