Air quality in Beijing is 'crazy bad,' but China still beats US in green investment

The US Embassy in Beijing tweets hourly air quality reports. While the Twitter feed reads 'crazy bad' and 'beyond index,' China far surpasses the US in its green investment efforts. China's air pollution won't change overnight, but it's on the right track. Congress, take note.

The US Embassy in Beijing monitors air quality hourly and issues reports on BeijingAir Twitter feed. One Friday late last month, (Nov. 19) the air in Beijing was so polluted, so smoggy, that the tweet had no established term to describe it. So, it simply reported that the air was “crazy bad.” I suspect we all pretty much get the idea, but let me try to be a little more precise about what “crazy bad” means.

On an air quality index of 0 to 500 (the AQI), “crazy bad” is off-the-charts, beyond the 500 upper limit. The number is a measure of ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide in the air. According to the AQI, a score of zero to 50 represents good air quality, 51 to 100 means moderate air quality, and 101 to 150 is unhealthy for sensitive groups. A score between 301 to 500 means “don’t even think of breathing it if possible,” or in more formal AQI terms: “Health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected.”

Another indicator of just how crazy bad “crazy bad” is: a score of over 500 contains more than 20 times the level of particulate matter deemed safe by the World Health Organization .

Major air pollutants

Now “crazy bad” is not the sort of language you’d ever expect to see coming out of the US Embassy. But a pollution score exceeding 500 is not what the programmer of the Embassy’s Twitter feed ever expected to see, either – hence “crazy bad” is what he threw in to the automated program. Within hours of the unconventional tweet, the Embassy had revised the tweet language, characterizing the air quality more staidly and diplomatically as “beyond index.”

But how did Beijing rack up this crazy bad, beyond index score? Here the list of contributing factors could go on, but a few key ones will serve: 1) November 15 marks the beginning of the public heating season – with heat supplied largely by coal-burning stations. 2) Urban sprawl continues, as cities and villages (requiring coal-generated energy) grow up on the outskirts of the city (requiring long commutes by countless numbers of people every day). 3) Roughly 4 million vehicles take to Beijing roads every day, producing 51 million tons of pollutants annually – and each day 1200 new cars join the Beijing traffic fray.

US green investment is anemic

The Chinese government is intently focused on issues of climate change and environmental pollution, and has developed a wide range of policies and measures to address them. Indeed, Beijing’s systematic investment this decade in renewable energy production (e.g, solar, wind, hydroelectric) and green industries (e.g., photovoltaics, hybrid and electric vehicles, windmills, garbage-powered generators) makes the US’s green investment look anemic – mostly because it is anemic. China’s new, 12th five-year plan (2011 to 2015) targets the development of low-carbon technologies, arguing that low-carbon industries are not just good for the environment but can propel a developing country into a developed country. (Congress, are you listening?)

Still, the effects of coal, cars, and sprawl in Beijing will not disappear overnight, and the air there is sure to get dirtier before it gets cleaner. The Embassy, I fear, will be tweeting “beyond index” with increasing frequency in the near term. I do wish, however, that the folks there had stuck with the original “crazy bad.” It captures the reality far better.

Daniel K. Gardner is Dwight W. Morrow professor of history and director of the Program in East Asian Studies at Smith College and the author of

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