On the Environment
Thursday, March 10, 2011
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By Susanne Stahl
Guest post by Angel Hsu
Chinese NGO releases Air Quality Transparency Index
was originally published on Angel Hsu's website. To view the charts accompanying the post, please visit her site.
Hsu is a doctoral student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Her research focuses on Chinese environmental performance measurement, governance, and policy.
The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) and Renmin University School of Law recently published the first version of what they’ve deemed the Air Quality Transparency Index (AQTI; available in Chinese only for now). Building off of similar indices aimed to gauge the availability and access of environmental information, such as the Pollution Information Transparency Index (PITI), the AQTI’s aim is to compare the transparency of air quality information in 20 Chinese cities and 10 international cities, mainly from North America and Europe.
The AQTI is significant start in providing greater and much needed context for air quality data in China, which have often been criticized for being confusing and misleading at times. Moreover, international agencies such as the World Bank has reported harrowing statistics suggesting China is home to some of the post polluted cities in the world. While reports like these do point to the serious environmental and health hazards caused by air pollution in many Chinese cities, it is important to note that international scrutiny of China’s air quality data would not even be possible of China didn’t make the data publicly accessible in the first place. There are potentially cities in the world with more serious air pollution than those in China, however perhaps unknown due to data and information limitations.
I’ve read over the report and the accompanying technical specifications (both are currently only available in Chinese; but I’ve attempted to quickly translate the 4-page technical document into English here*). Chinese cities selected include: Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Ningbo, Chengdu, Guiyang, Wuhan, Tianjin, Chongqing, Fuzhou, Dalian, Kunming, Nanning, Nanchang, Hohhot, Changsha, Nanjing, Zhengzhou, Lanzhou, Urumqi. To compare to other cities internationally, the researchers selected New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Hong Kong, Moscow, Mexico City, New Delhi.
The AQTI evaluation system draws on the IPE and the Natural Resources Defense Council‘s PITI evaluation index system. Roughly speaking, the PITI gauges 113 Chinese cities’ performance on pollution information transparency using eight metrics, which are then evaluated according to four evaluation criteria: systematic disclosure, timeliness, completeness, and user-friendliness (Table 1).
Table 1. Indicator scoring rubric for the AQTI. Source: Sabrina Orlins, NRDC/IPE.
These same four criteria were also used to gauge the transparency of information related to nine pollutant indicators: Particulate Matter with a diameter 2.5 microns or less (PM2.5); Sulfur Dioxide (SO2); Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2); Carbon Monoxide (CO); Ozone (O3); Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs); Lead (Pb); and “others” (Benzo[a]pyrene or B[a]P; Mercury (Hg) and Dioxin).
Table 2. Indicator weightings. Adapted from AQTI, 2011.
To determine the contribution of each indicator to the overall index, four criteria were used:
1) Degree of danger to health
2) Pollutant load
3) Developed country management status and trends
4) Domestic management status and capacity
For each of the nine pollutant indicators, gradings of high, medium and low were assigned to gauge the importance of each related to the above four factors. Following this exercise, PM10, PM2.5, SO2, and NO2 were determined to be the most important indicators and weighted at 60 percent, with each indicator assigned 15 percent of the overall score. CO, O3, VOC comprise the second category with 30 percent, and each indicator is given 10. The last category that includes lead and other pollutants comprises 10 percent, with each indicator representing 5 percent of the overall index (Table 2).
So, how did the 20 Chinese cities do? Table 3 shows a table of each city and how they performed with regards to transparency of information for the pollutants scored. Notable gaps include lack of reported, available information on PM2.5, and for most cities other than Beijing, CO, O3, VOCs, Pb, and others. Beijing, as the nation’s capital, not surprisingly, comes in first; Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, comes in last.
Table 3. How Chinese cities scored for each pollutant indicator. Adapted from AQTI, 2011.
How did the Chinese cities compare to the 10 international cities found in the reference group? Figure 1 compares the AQTI scores of the 10 reference group cities (in teal) and the 20 Chinese cities (in red). As one can see, all Chinese cities, with the exception of Beijing to New Dehli, fall behind international counterparts. Why is this the case? The report provides some reasons for the discrepancies: differences in air quality laws that require provision of more comprehensive pollutant measurement; developed countries tend to set targets according to World Health Organization guidelines which require more information. Figure 1.8 on Page 9 of the report includes a table that shows coverage of pollutants measured in major cities throughout the world. However, the Chinese government has indicated improvements in air quality measurement and monitoring in the next major policy plan – the Twelfth Five-Year Plan. My colleague at NRDC, Alex Wang, details some of these improvements in this blog post.
Figure 1. Comparison of AQTI scores for Chinese and International cities. Adapted from AQTI, 2011.
While pointing out these air quality information gaps, one should note that the AQTI does not provide an indication of air quality; but rather its aim is to compare the availability and transparency of air quality information reported by these 20 cities in China. To try to get a better sense of how the AQTI results stack up to actual air quality performance, I plotted the AQTI scores against the percentage of Class 1 (a score of 50 or less on China’s Air Pollution Index) air quality days that particular city achieved in 2010. As clearly illustrated, information transparency and performance on air quality do not necessarily go hand-in-hand in China. Page 29 of the report shows a similar chart that plots yearly-averaged PM10 concentrations against AQTI scores. For the international cities in the reference group, at least, a positive relationship between lower annual PM10 concentrations and higher information transparency seems to exist. This could suggest that as Chinese cities improve the transparency and availability of air quality data, the overall quality of air could improve.
Figure 2. AQTI scores versus Percentage of 'Class I' air quality days in 2010. Sources: AQTI, 2011 and MEP, 2011.
Special thanks to Sabrina Orlins of IPE/NRDC, Alvin Lin of NRDC, Yupu Zhao of Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies for their assistance in this post.
Air Quality Information Transparency Index (AQTI). January 18, 2011. Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs and Renmin University Center of Law. Available for download here: http://www.ipe.org.cn/Upload/IPE公告/AQTI-final-20110118.pdf
Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP). 2011. Datacenter can be accessed here: http://datacenter.mep.gov.cn/
*Note: the translation provided in the link represents my interpretation alone and is not the official English version from IPE and RUC. It is only meant as a guide to help understand how the AQTI was determined.
Tuesday, February 01, 2011
By Susanne Stahl
By Angel Hsu and Yupu Zhao
Last month’s UN-led climate talks in Cancún, Mexico, were largely touted as a success, as countries reached near consensus on critical issues such as technology transfer and the creation of a new Green Climate Fund to help developing countries adapt to global warming. The standing ovation for the Mexican hosts that erupted in the summit’s final plenary session came in stark contrast to the conclusion of last year’s Copenhagen talks, which ended behind doors, closed to civil-society observers.
Another marked change in Cancún was China’s tone and communication strategy, following heavy criticism at, and after, Copenhagen.
Whether the finger-pointing was valid or not, Copenhagen was a watershed event for China. In the run-up to the summit, Beijing put forth a voluntary commitment to reduce carbon intensity by 40% to 45% by 2020, compared to 2005 levels, breaking with precedent of avoiding specific emission targets. By making this pledge, as well as by recognising that it would not be first in line to receive financial assistance from developed countries for adaptation and mitigation measures, China stepped into a leadership role. Despite these efforts, the country’s relative lack of experience in climate diplomacy meant it still walked away as Copenhagen’s scapegoat.
“China was surprised by the emphasis on MRV [measurement, reporting, and verification of emissions reductions] in Copenhagen and the negative media attention it received, since it felt like it had brought a lot to the table by agreeing to reduce its carbon intensity and taking significant steps to improve energy efficiency and renewables,” said Alvin Lin, China climate and energy policy director at US environmental group the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Transparency of emissions data has been a key sticking point for the United States in climate negotiations. In Copenhagen, US delegates, including secretary of state Hillary Clinton and senator John Kerry, insisted that major emerging economies like China and India must be transparent about their emissions information before the United States would enact climate legislation and provide climate aid. Backed into a corner, China reluctantly agreed to international consultation and analysis (ICA) of its climate pledges – a less stringent version of MRV required of developed countries.
And so one lesson China took from Copenhagen was that it needed to improve its climate diplomacy and revamp its image, if it was to avoid shouldering further blame – particularly if the Cancún talks “failed”. The government started by releasing domestic media accounts that portrayed China’s role in Copenhagen as positive and constructive. Then, in October, China hosted its first UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference in Tianjin. The intersessional meeting in the lead-up to Cancún was a prime opportunity for China to showcase itself and reaffirm commitment to the UNFCCC process. But, while Tianjin provided Chinese media and NGOs with ample training ground, eyes were really turned to Cancún, waiting to see how China would respond after the previous year’s public-relations fiasco.
How did China’s strategy change in Mexico? First, it stepped out of the limelight, assuming a much lower profile than it had in Copenhagen. In Denmark, China joined other countries in setting up a pavilion in the Bella Convention Centre, where experts gave lectures and senior members of the negotiation team held daily press conferences. But amongst Cancún’s pavilions – including stands from not just the United States and the European Union, but also first-timers like India and Qatar – China’s was notably absent.
Second, the Chinese negotiation team made concerted efforts to speak in much softer tones in Cancún. A New York Times article pointed out that Chinese negotiators avoided mention of the United States by name, instead “obliquely” referring to it as an “Annex I country that is not a party to the Kyoto Protocol”: a far cry from the Sino-US blame game that erupted in Tianjin. The language was so soft that major media organisations started prematurely reporting that the United States and China were close to brokering a deal on MRV, before the two delegations had actually met.
China also took a new approach to communicating its negotiation stance on key issues, particularly on transparency. In Copenhagen, Chinese officials had appeared elusive when they opposed MRV on grounds of violating the country’s national sovereignty. But in the lead-up to Cancún, Chinese officials decided to be forthcoming. An article in chinadialogue quoted Xie Zhenhua, vice minister of China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the head of the Chinese delegation, as saying in strong, clear terms that “China will be transparent.”
Chinese civil-society organisations also contributed to efforts to refashion the country’s image in Cancún. A coalition of China-based NGOs was active in organising side events and distributing materials that showcased China’s climate success stories. Student-led initiatives between US and Chinese youth emphasised the need to build trust based on dialogue and mutual understanding. And Chinese and US-based NGOs, taking their cue from the youth collaborators, met and formalised a long-term action plan for cooperative action. Meanwhile, the private Chinese company Broad Air Conditioning demonstrated its sustainable building technologies at an off-site “Chinese pavilion” that was marked on shuttle-bus maps – and even confused by some for an official Chinese government pavilion.
Chinese media organisations also worked hard to portray China positively in Cancún, helped by the negotiation team’s efforts to make themselves available for interviews in the build-up to the conference. The China Daily, for instance, produced two 16-page glossy specials that were distributed during the first and second weeks of the summit, covering various aspects of China’s actions on climate change, such as efforts to promote low-carbon growth in cities, and including commentaries by foreign experts on international collaboration on clean energy.
Li Xing, assistant to the China Daily’s editor in chief, said Cancún was the first time the newspaper had published special climate conference reports: “I was in Copenhagen covering the climate talks last year. During that conference, quite a few papers, including the Financial Times and Japan Times, published special reports.
“In contrast, there was very little coming from China, except fliers at the China booth. That is why we thought of making China more understandable to the outside world here at Cancún. It is largely China Daily’s own initiative, but it does fit in with the wider government initiative to make China better understood in the world.”
The process to revamp China’s climate-communication strategy has, however, suffered inevitable growing pains. Several news articles during Cancún’s first week suggested China was still being misunderstood. A Reuters piece created a lot of excitement when it misreported that China had announced willingness to submit its voluntary emission-reduction targets to an internationally binding process – a “game-changing move”, according to many observers. But senior Chinese officials were quick to refute the claims and clarify that China’s position had not changed.
Huang Huikang, special representative for climate change at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who was quoted in the media reports, recognised the gaffe and told a group of young people from China and the United States that there were still translation issues when it came to speaking to foreign media. He pointed to the dual-edged nature of the press: while contributing to transparency and trust-building, it can also sensationalise and report inaccuracies.
China’s nascent climate diplomacy will only prove more critical for China in the build up to the next major climate meeting in Durban, South Africa, a period during which the international climate regime could significantly change for China. As Cancún failed to determine the legal form of the new climate agreements or to resolve what to do when the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012 – two key questions for China and other major developing countries – China will be faced with a particularly difficult conundrum: to be more conciliatory as in Cancún or to hold ground as in Copenhagen. Then in Durban, the new climate diplomacy of the world’s largest greenhouse-gas emitter may be tested once more.
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
By Susanne Stahl
By Angel Hsu and Yupu Zhao
In the politics of climate negotiations, which are often steeped in nuance and careful posturing, it’s easy to get lost in translation. On the ground in Cancun, reports have been flying about China’s so-called “game-changing” concessions, which could possibly “buoy” the climate Talks, which are quickly nearing an end. As we’re both on the ground in Cancun, we’re going to try to clear the air and get to the bottom of what exactly the Chinese have and haven’t said in the climate negotiations.
The first “game-changing” issue regards the legal nature or “bindingness” of the commitments China made at Copenhagen last year, in particular to reduce carbon intensity 40 to 45 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels. A Reuters article suggested that China was offering “for the first time to submit its voluntary carbon emissions target to a binding U.N. resolution.”
This announcement immediately made a big splash here in Cancun, with buzz in the corridors of China potentially “buoying” the negotiations. However, various media reports and press statements by Chinese officials themselves have muddled where China stands on this particular issue. Last year in Copenhagen, China committed to make its pledges domestically binding through national law. This move to make their carbon intensity reduction target as part of legally-binding, domestic law has been further confirmed through announcements by senior officials that the goals will be incorporated in the next two Five-Year Plans.
Therefore, from this angle, these statements are what Stern called “nothing new” and “business as usual” in Tuesday’s press conference. But what some here have suggested would be “game changing” would be if China were to submit their pledges to an official Conference of the Parties (COP) decision.
In this view, China formalizing its Copenhagen pledges in a UN agreement under the UNFCCC (such as the Kyoto Protocol) would be a move that developed countries have signaled readiness for but developing countries have not. This is mainly because under the Kyoto Protocol, which is legally binding, the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities exempts non-Annex I countries (i.e. developing nations) from requirements to mitigate their climate impacts.
“Earlier, some Chinese officials were reluctant to do so because they thought this commitment would mean a detraction from the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities,” says Roy Lee, a professor of law at Pace University, who has been advocating such an action by China for some time.
However, according to our analysis and conversations with members of the Chinese delegation, these suppositions are based on misunderstandings of what the Chinese were trying to say about their commitments to make their carbon intensity targets part of domestic law.
Liu Zhenmin, the Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Director of the Chinese negotiating team, said in an interview with Chinese journalists that foreign news outlets sometimes falsely report on China’s position due to language barriers and translation problems, hinting that China still hasn’t made any commitment to the idea of “legally-binding,” as reported by Reuters.
Opening up to MRV?
The second major concession media reported was on the measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) of Chinese emissions data and climate mitigation actions. Early last week, before U.S. and Chinese negotiators had officially met, the Associated Press announced that the two countries were close to agreeing on MRV, an issue that proved to be hotly divisive at last year’s Copenhagen climate summit and even in preliminary talks in Tianjin, less than two months before the talks in Cancun began.
However, it appeared that the AP based their premature analysis on softer language by both the U.S. and particularly from China, which was perhaps a strategic move on the part of the Chinese to revamp their image from Copenhagen. Then on Monday, the Associated Press reported again that China had “said all their operations, including fully domestic actions, would be open to international scrutiny.”
This statement, while not entirely inaccurate, is largely misleading. At a press conference on Monday, Xie Zhenhua- the head of the Chinese delegation and Vice Minister of China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC)- reaffirmed pledges of transparency made in Copenhagen and Tianjin. These included willingness to submit actions receiving support, technology transfer, or capacity building through the UNFCCC process to international MRV mechanisms. In addition, China’s voluntary, domestically-funded actions - which are the main concern of developed countries like the United States - would be subject to review by “international consultation and analysis” (ICA), the official language included in the Copenhagen Accord. ICA has been proposed as a MRV-type transparency mechanism applicable to developing countries that undertake unsupported and voluntary mitigation actions, yet in the view of some countries it is distinct from the more stringent MRV mechanisms proposed for developed nations. The specifics of both MRV and ICA are still vague and options are currently being debated in Cancun without much progress. Therefore, the statements regarding transparency here in Cancun are nothing new.
Some of this media confusion also centers on a proposal attempting to clarify these transparency measures, which was made by India’s Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh. Ramesh suggested at the Major Economies Forum meeting Nov. 17-18 that countries with a share of global emissions greater than 1 percent (around 16 countries) should submit actions to ICA once every two to three years. When the talks began last Monday, Nov. 29, the Chinese delegation was mum on whether China supported Ramesh’s proposals; while Todd Stern, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, said that the proposal was “light” and lacked enough specifics. In fact in the same press conference, Stern mentioned deliberations regarding MRV represented the least progress to date in Cancun - far from news reports of U.S. and China being close to reaching agreement.
The U.S.’s position aside, where exactly China stands on Ramesh’s proposal, which has been gaining support amongst developing countries since negotiations began in Cancun, is unclear. Shortly after arriving in Cancun over the weekend, Xie met with Ramesh and discussed the proposal for four hours. Despite BASIC countries, which include China and India, deliberating the ICA proposal, it is still unclear as to what extent it receives China’s endorsement. Nevertheless, Minister Xie did suggest that the next step is to discuss the details of the proposal, particularly on the frequency of assessment for qualified developing countries. Xie reiterated the country’s support of the principle of ICA- that it should be non-intrusive, non-punitive, and should respect national sovereignty.
So - are the Chinese changing the game here in Cancun or simply reiterating the status quo? Our assessment is that the most significant factor for the Chinese has been its shift in communication and messaging, which has “softened” their image and subsequently led to the dramatic headlines we’ve seen so far in Cancun. But more on that piece later.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Guest post by Angel Hsu Original post can be found in The Atlantic. Coming away from this past week of negotiations at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Tianjin, the sense is certainly that time is not on our side. While delegates from more than 150 countries were charged the task of whittling down options on the table to prepare for heads of state and ministers in Cancun, the talks concluded with dishearteningly little progress, a widening divide between developed and developing countries, and resurfacing tensions between the U.S. and China on climate change. From my observations in Copenhagen to most recently in Tianjin, the acrimony between the US and China appears to still rest on three of the most hotly-contested letters in the climate debate - M, R, and V, which refer to the measurement, reporting, and verification of mitigation actions and financial support. In Copenhagen, China agreed to international verification of actions receiving financing, technology transfer, or capacity building; while also consenting to "international consultation and analysis" (ICA) for its domestic actions, which include a pledge to reduce carbon intensity 40 to 45 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels. At a press conference early in the week, I heard the head of the Chinese delegation Vice Minister Xie Zhenhua say that China was trying to increase transparency and did not have any major problems with MRV - as long as national sovereignty was respected. The differences in viewpoints between the US and China at the talks in Tianjin caused major rifts in the discussions and culminated with the Chinese lead negotiator Su Wei calling the US a "pig preening itself in a mirror." In the classical Chinese idiom where Su derived the comparison, Zhubajie zhao jinzi, li wai bu shi ren - meaning "pig in mirror, not human inside or outside" - the half-man, half-pig character Zhubajie is portrayed as lazy, gluttonous, and idiotic. [my note: anyone who is familiar with China's Journey to the West will know the Monkey King and Man-Pig characters] Needless to say, in Chinese culture, this less-than-desirable comparison is considered an undiplomatic slight. Su's comments in the corridors of the Tianjin Meijiang Convention Center reflect his obvious frustration with what he feels is hypocrisy on the part of the U.S. in the climate negotiations. During a press conference, Su criticized the United States for failing to meet its UNFCCC commitments, particularly in terms of pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to provide financial assistance to developing countries. He said it was unfair for the United States to criticize China and make them the scapegoat in the climate debates when the United States itself "isn't doing anything," Su said. His remarks were counter to a speech Todd Stern, Special Envoy for Climate Change in the United States, gave at the University of Michigan Law School in which he said that China was "spurning" commitments made in Copenhagen, acting as if the agreement "never happened." And there's evidence that the Chinese are working to improve capacity as well as transparency of its measurement and reporting systems. Sun Cuihua, the Deputy General-Director of the Climate Change Coordination Office in China's National Development and Reform Commission announced at a side event that China is currently working on a centralized database of GHG emissions, which would include emissions data from Chinese municipalities and provinces and would eventually become open for the public. Although no specific timeline was given for completion, this is a major announcement, considering the most recent publicly-available data for GHG emission levels of Chinese provinces dates back to 1994. Despite these efforts, the US still pushed China on the MRV issue in Tianjin, which I think could have been a negotiating tactic on the part of the US to deflect attention away from the fact that the Washington still has been unable to pass national legislation on energy and climate change. What perhaps bothers the US most on the MRV issue is the fear that if China indeed backs away from the Copenhagen Accord in the negotiations, its promises of MRV and ICA go along with it. This fear was expressed by lead US negotiator and Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing. Discussion on measurement, reporting, and verification of GHG emissions even amongst non-government actors has also become particularly sensitive following the Tianjin talks, as I've heard from colleagues here in China that several US-China bilateral workshops planned to discuss MRV have been canceled. So without the two largest climate behemoths talking constructively - and not bickering - what does this mean moving forward to Cancun? First, geographical differences aside, Cancun is not going to be any Copenhagen. The expectations are already much lower -BBC news is contemplating only sending one correspondent to cover the talks, as opposed to around 30 last year. Hopes for a legally-binding deal have long been off the table - I could even sense the difference in Pershing's more relaxed demeanor in Tianjin compared to Copenhagen. Second, the inability of countries in Tianjin to make enough progress on the negotiation text means that some important issues identified in the Copenhagen Accord may not be discussed in Cancun. Bright points at Copenhagen, such discussion on credits from avoided deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), were barely even touched at the talks at Tianjin, which do not bode well for hopes of a decision in Cancun. There is an urgent feeling that Cancun is the last shot for all parties to come up with enough concrete action to maintain the credibility of the process moving forward into the next year. If countries are unsuccessful in agreeing upon enough concrete actions in Cancun, there are rumblings, particularly from the European Union, that some parties might jump ship and try bilateral talks or negotiations through the G-20 or Major Economies forum instead. Unfortunately, if multilateral negotiations do start to disperse centrifugally, the one bilateral relationship that stands to make the most difference on the global climate - the one between the US and China - could be damaged in the UNFCCC process.