Remember China’s toxic smog problem? Two years ago stories were coming out about Beijing’s searching for ace pilots to help land planes at the capital, so bad had the situation become. But the dangerous air pollution seemed to fade from international headlines recently, and Greenpeace reported Beijing’s skies were much clearer during the first quarter of this year. As the FT reports, however, China’s official smog numbers aren’t exactly reliable, and the problem may be worse than we think:
In Beijing, [smog] worsened after the environment ministry announced that it had achieved its five-year pollution targets six months early. Research from one government-backed institute suggests the ministry has instead undercounted emissions of sulphur dioxide by about half.
The research highlights the difficulty China faces even quantifying its pollution problem, given the challenge of obtaining accurate statistics. Beijing has pledged to rein in its carbon emissions so that they stop growing by 2030, despite not having published an official estimate of emissions since 2005.
A study by the China Environment Chamber of Commerce shows that China emitted about 30m tonnes of SO2 last year, up from 25m tonnes in 2005, based on calculations of coal use by non-power generators such as metals smelters and factories. That contrasts with official figures that SO2 emissions fell to 19m tonnes last year.
In August 2014, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection said on its website that air pollution had gotten worse from the previous year, and this latest study from the China Environment Chamber of Commerce suggests that, despite high-profile attempts to whitewash the country’s sooty environmental image, some large and quite deadly air pollution problems remain.
This also serves as a reminder of the dubious nature of China’s self-reported statistics. Negotiators at the now-ongoing climate summit in Paris ought to keep the seeming fuzziness of Beijing’s math in mind when they seek (quixotically) to hammer out an agreement to limit global carbon emissions. The fact that the world’s biggest emitter can’t be relied upon to provide accurate data only compounds the challenges facing those delegates.