Tuesday, February 9, 2010

New Chinese Pollution Census Data Released - NY Times

Very glad that there's a more comprehensive survey of pollution out there. Unfortunately, it shows a lot more work is needed -- and that past statistics (especially on water pollution) could be problematic.

P.S. At the end of January, Ministry of Environmental Protection announced that two new pollution indicators, NOx ("discharged from vehicles and power plants and causes acid rain") and ammonia nitrogen ("another major measure of water quality") were introduced into the emission control list for the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15).

Currently, the pollutants they are focusing on are SO2 for air, and chemical oxygen demand (COD) for water. China is apparently on track to meet its target of reducing 10% of emissions below 2005 levels, by 2010. (Not including this new census data, which takes into account agricultural pollution).

China Report Shows More Pollution in Waterways
The New York Times / February 10, 2010

BEIJING — China’s government on Tuesday unveiled its most detailed survey ever of the pollution plaguing the country, revealing that water pollution in 2007 was more than twice as severe as official figures that had long omitted agricultural waste.

The first-ever national pollution census, environmentalists said, represented a small step forward for China in terms of transparency. But the results also raised serious questions about the shortcomings of China’s previous pollution data and suggested that even with limited progress in some areas, the country still had a long way to go to clean its waterways and air.

The pollution census, scheduled to be repeated in 2020, took more than two years to complete. It involved 570,000 people, and included 1.1 billion pieces of data from nearly 6 million sources of pollution, including factories, farms, homes and pollution-treatment facilities, the government announced at a news conference.

But the comprehensiveness of the survey also resulted in stark discrepancies between some of the calculations and annual figures that the government has published in the past. By far the biggest of these involved China’s total discharge of chemical oxygen demand — the main gauge of water pollution. These discharges totaled 30.3 million tons in 2007, the census showed.

In recent years the Ministry of Environmental Protection has done a much narrower calculation of these discharges, excluding agricultural effluents like fertilizers and pesticides as well as fluids leaking from landfills. By that narrower measure, discharges came to only 13.8 million tons in 2007, which officials described at the time as a decline of more than 3 percent from 2006 and a “turning point.”

Zhang Lijun, the vice minister of environmental protection, sought to play down the differences with previous data. He noted that the census counted 13.2 million tons of agricultural effluents for the first time, and another 324,600 tons of discharges from landfills.

The census keepers had also employed updated methodologies and reached many more parts of the countryside and industrial sites than had official statistics, which helped account for the much larger figure in the census, Mr. Zhang said. Were it not for the vastly expanded scope of the survey, the chemical oxygen demand level in 2007 would stand at only 5.3 percent higher than previously calculated, he said.

Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a nonprofit research group in Beijing, said that government planners estimated that the country’s rivers and lakes could handle only 7.4 million tons a year of chemical oxygen demand. The scale and significance of agricultural effluent was seldom recognized in previous government planning, which focused on bringing down mainly industrial emissions to around 7 million tons a year from 13.8 million tons, said Mr. Ma, a leading expert on water pollution in China.

The new total of more than 30 million tons suggests a much bigger problem. “We believed we needed to cut our emissions in half, but today’s data means a lot more work needs to be done,” Mr. Ma said.

The extent of agricultural waste could prove a more intractable problem than the many factories dumping effluent into China’s rivers and lakes.

“When it’s millions of farmers, it’s more difficult to bring it under control,” Mr. Ma said.

Steven Ma, of the Beijing office of Greenpeace, said that the government’s decision to calculate and release figures for agriculture would start to have an effect on the policy debate over water pollution in China. “Everybody knew there was a problem with agricultural pollution in China, but now there are numbers,” he said.

Mr. Zhang said that the findings of the census were roughly in line with official expectations. “There were no major surprises,” he said.

Based on the narrower approach, officials say China is on track to meet or exceed the nation’s pollution goals: to trim levels of chemical oxygen demand as well as sulfur dioxide, a major air pollutant, by 10 percent between 2005 and 2010. For now, the census would not change how those targets are evaluated, Mr. Zhang said.

“Current results of the census will not be linked to environmental performance,” he added.

In terms of sulfur dioxide emissions in 2007, in fact, the census totaled only 23.2 million tons, compared with 24.7 million tons in the official data released in 2008. But census figures for other important metrics, such as soot and ammonia nitrogen, another indicator of water quality, were higher than the previous data by double-digit percentages.

The census also broke down China’s pollution toll into a considerably greater number of categories and sectors than the government does regularly. Some Chinese environmentalists and media outlets took particular note of the amount of poisonous discharge of heavy metals like arsenic, mercury and lead, a frequent source of protests in towns and villages over mass contamination from nearby factories.

The census would help the government take a more “targeted and focused” approach to combating pollution in coming years, Mr. Zhang said. The government has indicated it will add emissions of ammonia nitrogen and nitrogen oxides, which are discharged from vehicles and power plants, to a list of reduction targets from 2011 to 2015.

Jonathan Ansfield reported from Beijing, and Keith Bradsher from Hong Kong. Zhang Jing contributed research.

URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/10/world/asia/10pollute.html

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