China Collects Pollution Data from Almost 6 Million Sources

China just released its first ever pollution census – a national survey that collected data from almost six million separate sources , to which China devoted a reported $100 million and 570,000 staff in the collection effort. In late 2006, China’s State Council made the decision to conduct the survey. The Ministry then spent a year preparing, and the actual data collection took place in 2008. The Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) has issued aggregated data from the study. There have been numerous press reports in both English and Chinese, but intrepid readers can also find what is essentially the Executive Summary of the report on the web in Chinese*, and there is also a speech by the leader of the study describing more of the process and background.

As much of the press has noted, and Vice Minister Zhang Lijun emphasized in his press conference, the major story is the improved measurement of water pollution. The report reveals considerably more water pollution from more sources than previously calculated. To date, China had collected data mainly on industrial sources, with some data on urban water quality. This study included millions of agricultural sources. In measuring water pollution this expansion of data sources changed the statistics dramatically. Chemical oxygen demand (COD, a measure of the amount of chemical pollution in the water) was measured by the census at 30.3 million tons in 2008, more than double the 13.2 million ton figure the Ministry had reported for the same year. The census reports agriculture to be the largest source at 13.2 million tons, with industry producing 5.6 million tons and households 11.1 million tons. This suggests the importance of adding agricultural sources to measurements of water pollution. It appears that the previous Ministry figure, focused on urban areas and industry, did in fact capture industrial and most household pollution, but for water, in particular, leaving out agriculture is leaving out a major part of the story.

MEP not only included agricultural data, but the Ministry of Agriculture signed on to the report and participated in the press conference. Controlling agricultural sources of pollution is challenging in all countries. These are what are known as non-point source pollutants , and treating wastewater in the form of run-off is difficult. The Ministry also reported the figures for nitrogen and for phosphorus, the two major pollutants that lead to eutrophication (or nutrient overload, leading to excess algae and other water plant growth). These pollutants come primarily from agriculture (the major source of nitrogen in China), and household wastewater (the largest source for phosphorus). Neither werewas targeted specifically for control in the current Chinese Five Year Plan, and there is much discussion that these might be added to the upcoming Five Year Plan, due to be released in March 2011. Getting the Ministry of Agriculture involved in this census suggests that MEP is working to get a consensus on such an effort.

The timing of this “pollution census” appears geared to generating new targets for the 12th Five Year Plan. The emphasis on water aligns with what we’ve been hearing about the growing interest in new measures to address water pollution. Air pollution figures aligned much more closely with previously released figures – a not surprising fact, since agricultural data is a smaller fraction of air pollution, which mainly derives from the urban and industrial sources China has been tracking for years. Zhang’s emphasis in the press conference was on vehicle emissions, which he noted are having a negative impact on urban air quality. This again seems to connect to discussions for what additional pollutants will be added to next year’s Five Year Plan. The current Five Year Plan has focused on SO2, which comes mainly from coal-burning boilers and power plants. After years of struggling to make headway, MEP’s singular focus on SO2 appears to have paid off, with SO2 levels dropping by 10% in the last four years, putting them one year ahead of schedule. MEP is widely expected to add new pollutants in this next plan, and much of the discussion has focused on NOx, where while industry is an important source, the census reported that vehicles are responsible for 30% of the pollution.

In fact NOx controls have already begun in the power sector, even before next year’s Plan. On January 27, MEP announced NOx control requirements on all power plants above 200 MW throughout the country and on power plants regardless of size in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong. The Ministry also announced new reporting requirements for NOx, and said it intends to issue a heavy metals control plan by June of this year.

The census should provide an excellent baseline for future pollution data collection and assist with target- setting for next year’s Five Year Plan. With only a summary report to examine, it is difficult to see what level of detail on some key pollutants it provides to the actual policymakers in MEP. For example, the summary provides no information on either PM 2.5 or ground-level ozone, two of the major air pollutants that affect human health, particularly in urban areas. It The report also gave a total for heavy metal pollution, but no breakdowns.

As with other pollution information in China, it is provided at a level of aggregation (in this case all national totals) that is not useful for local communities seeking to address specific pollution issues in their areas. While it is likely that provincial governments will issue census reports for their areas, local activists were quick to ask that more comprehensive and detailed data be made publicly available.

Zhang expressed optimism that overall pollution levels in China were about to peak and then decline. He said China’s research suggests that pollution will peak at $3000 in per capita GDP, and noted that the Ministry of Statistics reported per capita GDP of almost that level in 2008 (in fact, most analysts would put the number slightly above today). Zhang’s focus on the income figure is connected to the popularity of the “environmental Kuznets curve,” a concept that suggests that pollution peaks and then begins to decline at some level of income. This concept is controversial in Western academic literature, but widely accepted in China.

This census is not about energy or climate, because they are regulated by China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and National Energy Administration (NEA). MEP has no authority over greenhouse gas emissions, and thus would not be expected to report on them.

*The Chinese text is a bit confusing in two places, because they took a report and put it into columns without fixing the formatting for two charts. When you come upon two lengthy series of numbers in the middle of the text, those are both charts giving the specific numbers of sources studied in different regions. This is pretty hard to decipher without the more clearly printed report, but the actual data on various pollutants is all much easier to read in the text.

Photo by Vineus, courtesy of a Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike Generic 2.0 License.