China’s Environmental Ministry: Funding Biggest Obstacle for Tighter Air Quality Monitoring

Starting this year, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection will being including “fine” particulate matter measuring PM2.5 (or 2.5 micrometers in diameter) in air quality readings for Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei and certain cities around the country’s southern Pearl River Delta. PM2.5 particles are known to have severe effects on human health, their small size allowing them to penetrate more deeply into the respiratory system than larger “course” dust particles, which measure up to PM10 in diameter.

To date, China’s official air quality reports were based only on course particle readings as the government long resisted implementing tighter air quality standards, claiming that “the time was not ripe.” Furthermore, Chinese government officials often called into question or downplayed low air quality readings provided by the U.S. Embassy’s Beijing air monitoring station, which measures PM2.5 particles and provides readings via Twitter. Before Twitter was blocked in China, the Chinese government had requested that the U.S. Embassy make its air quality readings available only to U.S. citizens.

Although people have looked skeptically at the Chinese government’s suspiciously rosy air pollution readings for some time, following 2010’s “crazy bad” incident, and this winter’s “fog/smog” debate, many in China have called for a revamping of the country’s air quality monitoring system. But while China is finally proving itself politically amenable to introducing new standards, the biggest problem now facing the implementation of stricter monitoring appears to be funding, according to an article from the China Broadcasting Network which circulated widely today on the nation’s media.

Because 2012 budgets have already been established for many of China’s government organizations and local municipalities, finding the money to purchase costly new air quality monitoring equipment will be a challenge in many places, a source in the article points out. A new air monitoring machine capable of detecting PM2.5 particulate matter would cost between 380,000 RMB and 80,000 RMB (or $60,000 and $12,500 USD).

“According to preliminary estimates,” a reporter in the above-mentioned article states, “over 2 billion RMB [$316 million USD] will be needed to purchase PM2.5, ozone and carbon monoxide detecting machines for 388 prefecture-level or above cities, so funding will be difficult.”

Some of China’s first-tier cities are said to already possess air quality measuring equipment capable of detecting PM2.5 particles. Last November, Nanjing “accidentally” posted the city’s air quality reading using PM2.5 measurements online, only to have them removed shortly thereafter with the statement that its PM2.5 readings are used for research purposes only and are not intended for the public. Beijing and Shanghai are also said to have air quality monitoring equipment which can detect PM2.5 particles. Which, if any, of China’s other major urban centers already have similar equipment is not known.

According to experts, energy conservation and environmental protection are expected to become the largest pillar industry of China’s economy by 2015, ranking above the country’s IT, biotech and high-end manufacturing sectors in terms of investment. For the short-term though, tougher air quality monitoring standards may remain out of reach pending budgetary approval.

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