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An Opening In China

Annual study reveals improvement in availability of environmental quality information

by Jean-François Tremblay
June 23, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 25

Major Chinese cities have improved their disclosure of real-time information about air and water pollution, according to an annual survey compiled by two leading environmental advocacy groups. But their report also shows that China still has a long way to go to improve access to data, particularly when it comes to industrial emissions and the environmental impact of proposed projects.

The study was produced by the Beijing-based Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), based in New York City.

Using a tool called the Pollution Information Transparency Index (PITI), the survey ranks Chinese cities by how much environmental information they disclose. Factors considered include disclosure of real-time water and air quality reports, ability of the public to participate in environmental assessments of new projects, and access to the emissions data of large industrial firms.

Improved access to environmental data may help reduce the Chinese public’s opposition to industrial projects, particularly in the chemical industry, notes Ma Jun, director of IPE. In recent years, residents of major Chinese cities have held demonstrations against p-xylene facilities that were either operating or at the planning stage.

“In general, corporations in China, particularly the chemical ones, don’t have much credibility with the public,” Ma says. “One of the very important ways to enhance public trust is transparency.” Yet access to emissions data for large industrial corporations throughout China remains poor, the IPE-NRDC study found.

More access to data could also enable researchers to compile environmental indicators for China. In a paper published two years ago in Environmental Development (2012, DOI: 10.1016/j.envdev.2012.05.001), Yale University researcher Angel Hsu and colleagues explored the feasibility of creating environmental performance indexes for the country.

The researchers found that the biggest challenge to creating such indexes was lack of access to data. Their conclusion was that government officials across China fear releasing environmental information could endanger national security.

At present, the city of Ningbo, in Zhejiang province, has the best record of transparency for environmental data, according to the IPE-NRDC study. But it scored only 66 points out of 100 on the PITI measurement scale. The metropolis of Shanghai scored 53, ranking it seventh.

Among the Ningbo government’s accomplishments, according to IPE’s Ma, is updating air quality data every hour and water quality data every two hours. “Ningbo has done a great job,” he says, “but their disclosure of environmental impact assessments is limited, and they haven’t done much either on their disclosure of data on discharges of toxic chemicals.”

Each year for the past four years, major Chinese cities have improved their access to environmental data, according to the IPE-NRDC study. Moreover, the accuracy of the data released has improved, Ma says.

For example, in the recent past, when cities near Beijing were releasing data less often, they routinely reported lower air pollution levels than the Chinese capital did. But as the frequency of reporting has increased, “they now are found to have worse air quality than Beijing,” he says. Data released frequently to the public are subjected to more widespread scrutiny, he explains.

Although it is not known for its commitment to transparency, the Chinese government does value the trait in the environmental realm. A major update to the country’s environmental law, adopted earlier this year, has a special chapter on transparency and public participation. “It clearly states that the people have a right to know, a right to participate, and a right to supervise,” Ma says.


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