Peking university professor Xie Shaodong was tired of China’s longtime lack of a national pollution forecast, and tired of excuses. So he and two colleagues decided to do something about it. This summer the launch of the Short-horse Forecast (“aima yubao”) not only marked China’s first national pollution forecasting resource, but the public debut of the non-government outfit behind it, run and operated by independent scientists.
“The government says over and over it’s difficult,” Xie told local news outfit Caixin, but “the people have needs, too. We had the capability, and just came out with our own first. If that can finally push the government to do the same, then good.”
The five-day forecast site marks an attempt by citizens to go where officials long refused to tread, and to do so with as much authority as a non-government actor here can muster. The site has yet to meet with open official opposition since the group registered the site’s domain name late last year, and a smartphone app is already in the works according to the site’s blog. But practices long endemic to mainland pollution reporting may ultimately undermine the forecast’s actual effectiveness in promoting better awareness and understanding of China’s hazardous air conditions.
Official air quality forecasts of varying range have existed in China for decades, but as of yet no plans for an official nationwide report have been announced. In that time, awareness of the dangers of air pollution has mounted, and the need for advance warning of severe pollution has become more urgent. A joint report published this year by the World Bank and the Development Research Center of China’s State Council estimated the annual economic cost of air pollution to the country ranged from at least US$100 billion to more than US$300 billion. That’s not including the potential for severe long-term impacts on small children and infants: Higher mortality rates, birth defects and impaired cognition are all likely effects of growing up in China’s nigh-omnipresent haze.
One might then expect a warm welcome for any tool that could help mitigate this damage, and the Short-horse Forecast is just such an instrument. While city or regional government pollution forecasts typically look one to three days ahead, Short-horse predicts a full five days, covers the entire country and provides city-specific forecasts for most major urban centers. It also gives regional forecasts for the Yangtze River Delta, the Chengdu-Chongqing area, the Pearl River Delta, and the Beijing-Hebei-Tianjin region.
Short-horse currently forecasts both coarse-particle pollution and the more dangerous fine-particle pollution known as PM2.5. It also predicts ozone levels, sandstorms and other hazards, together with more run of the mill conditions like temperature and humidity. According to Caixin, the group hopes the site can provide an independent third party forecast for local governments’ air quality forecasting units, and can become an important reference platform for those units to raise the accuracy of their forecasting for such “man-made” phenomena. While the site’s design may look more nag than steed, Short-horse still seems like a win for everyone except, perhaps, the environment officials it’s put to shame. The Ministry of Environmental Protection has dragged its feet on providing such a comprehensive forecast for years.
But there may be a catch in provision 22 of China’s forecasting law, which states that any organizations or individuals outside the state aren’t allowed to distribute weather forecasts or severe weather warnings to the public. Caixin’s report asserts that the Short-horse Forecast is legal as haze and similar air quality problems are brought about by man-made pollution. Therefore, they shouldn’t fall under the category of natural atmospheric activity. That may be an overly sunny assumption: PM2.5 particles may be man-made, but ozone particles and sandstorms are naturally occurring, even if their intensity and frequency are compounded by human behavior. The same goes for other forecasted phenomena provided by the site, such as temperature extremes and average wind speed.
But it’s not only the legal status of the site that may be in question: its accuracy is also uncertain. While the Short-horse has incorporated a prediction model endorsed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for improved accuracy, the sources of information for pollution emissions levels, the method used to classify forecasted levels and the forecast’s online-exclusive nature remain problematic.
First, many government-reported levels of pollution probably lowball the actual figures by a substantial margin. In Beijing, where the US Embassy tweets hourly Air Quality Index (AQI) readings – the closest municipal monitoring stations and city-wide average often give much lower readings, by anywhere from 20-70 points on the popularly used 500-point scale. Similar discrepancies can be seen in other Chinese cities where US consulates also provide AQI feeds, and it is reasonable to expect comparable underreporting from other local governments.
Second, even if pollution levels are accurately reported, the way they are normally classified in China – including on Short-horse – misrepresents how dangerous to citizens’ health a given level of pollution really is. For example, the US EPA brands an AQI reading of 50-100 “moderate”, while the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection labels the same range “good”; the EPA calls an AQI reading of between 150-200 “unhealthy”, while the MEP calls it “moderate”. When asked about this divergence, officials have sought shelter under the umbrella of Chinese exceptionalism, claiming it is inappropriate to evaluate China’s air quality using foreign standards.
Finally, Short-horse forecast is only available to the net-savvy. While a growing number of Chinese are getting online, mostly via smart phone, older generations often still rely on print media or TV news broadcasts for their forecasting information. Old-timers aren’t necessarily in the habit of checking their locale’s pollution level before planning an outing; even on the most hazardous of hazy days, Beijing’s grandparents can be seen teetering through parks and neighborhood streets, hand in hand with their toddling progeny. Without an official pollution forecast run prominently in major papers and newscasts, two of China’s most vulnerable groups – family elders and the young children they’re often left to take care of – will likely remain regularly exposed.
Based on the above wrinkles in an otherwise positive development, it is worth asking whether a forecast system, official or not, can pressure local governments to do much more than become better at manipulating the data they publish. And before Short-horse can prompt the government to publish an official national forecast, it probably needs national visibility. That’s far from assured, as the Caixin report mentioned is one of, if not the only example of coverage the platform has received to date.
While the Short-horse Forecast may be an admirable step in the right direction by the civil sector, it still doesn’t fill the gap left by transparent and well-enforced pollution disclosure laws. The environmental interests of both citizens and the government may ultimately aligned, but real progress will require substantial catch-up on the part of the latter- even if just to match a pony’s pace. ♦
Author: Hudson Lockett (@KangHexin)