Interview: New Website Tracks China's Air Pollution in Pictures

The Chinese government may be irritated that the U.S. embassy and its consulates release air quality information about China's major cities, but it can't hide from the fact that air pollution throughout the country remains a major — and literally visible — problem that shows no signs of going away.

Michael Zhao, who runs Asia Society's China Green project, recently launched a new website called China Air Daily, which allows users to view daily photographs of the skies of China's major cities instead of having to plow through lists of statistical data (but if you like statistical data, the site has plenty of that, as well).

Asia Blog interviewed Zhao via email.

What are the current ways to monitor air quality in China? How does China Air Daily differ?

There are many statistical ways to monitor air quality in China. The Chinese system of environmental protection bureaus monitors some of the key pollutants in their local areas, such as PM10, NO2 and SO2, and some large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have started to also include PM2.5, which many Westerners believe is more detrimental to human health.

Beijing, for a long while before this year, had been setting a target of so-called blue-sky days every year. And that blue-sky day is totally based on the statistical benchmark of API, or air pollution index, which has been called into question whether it's accurate enough to gauge air quality. And many days, as far as our photographic evidence has proven, a blue-sky day in Beijing designated by the Beijing authorities could be quite hazy and smoggy — sometimes you do not see the sky at all. Fortunately Beijing has abolished this blue-day regime and stopped counting its "blue-sky" days this year.

China Air Daily offers a visual documentation of air quality in some of China's largest cities. We provide two sets of pollution data for these cities as well, but what we mostly value is a simple picture over a city's horizon so that anyone could literally "see" how good or bad today's air quality is. Yes, it would make a lot of sense to go back to the past few days or weeks in your city to see whether the air quality is getting better or worse, or you could compare a city to another or several other ones, including a couple in the U.S. But simply put, a picture here is just worth more than many thousands of words.

Based on your research, is China's air quality getting any better or worse? Do you think it will improve?

Based on our archive and recent few months of monitoring since starting development of the site, I have to say that Beijing's air quality has gotten way worse, especially compared with those months during the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008. Back then, when you flip through the weeks and months, you could at least see a quite blue-sky day, or two, in any week. But nowadays, even when the pollution levels drop to pristine conditions like New York, you could still see quite a bit of haze hanging in the air, let alone some of those heavily polluted days when you couldn't see the trees in front of your eyes. And sadly, over the last few months, there are only a handful of blue-sky days, by that I mean when you could see some blue color of the sky.

I am not positive that Beijing's air quality will improve. This is really not Beijing's fault by itself. This whole northern China region has been plagued by air pollution due to a combination of factors: coal dust from Shanxi, dust blown from the Gobi out in the west, and industries around the capital that contribute to the build-up of particulate matter and other pollutants, and increasing number of cars that also adds to the air pollution. I don't think the air quality in the region will improve anyway in the near term but I do think China will find ways to clean up over the next few years.

What are average Chinese people saying about the country's air quality? Do they see it as a problem? Is there any way for them to take action?

I am intrigued that many Chinese are increasingly aware of their own air pollution problem, maybe more and more people get to travel overseas and they get to realize that Beijing's air really sucks.

Before I came to Berkeley for grad school, I didn't genuinely believe that air pollution in Beijing was bad. But when you do have a comparison, you see the problem vividly. And I believe that more and more Chinese are getting the problem, and that also has to do with the fact that air quality has indeed gotten so much worse over the last couple of years. That's why people are taking action, for example people are buying air purifiers or filters for their cars or homes, hoping that the machine can suck away a lot of the fine particulate matter that's one of the most detrimental health hazards. And NGOs are also trying to thinking of innovative ways to do something about air pollution. Some are buying their own equipment to measure air pollutants on their own and share information with the public.

But to see actual results of air quality improvements, the government has to step in with bold moves. I heard Beijing has started some advisory body to collect information and suggestions to clean up the air. But one thing I am sure is that it's going to take a long time to see some major improvement.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Shuan Sim
Shuan Sim is a contributor to Asia Blog. Originally from Singapore, he's currently studying Journalism at New York University — and is an avid unicyclist.