Environmental Data Transparency in China

From Baseball to Internet Entrepreneurs, to politics and elections, to movie predictions and on to basically every other industry, we are experiencing a massive increase in the use of statistics and metrics to track and evaluate performance.  This is absolutely, unequivocally a good thing, but here in China, we have a long way to go.  Environmental researcher extrordinaire and friend of the blog Angel Hsu told the English speaking world about IPE‘s new Air Quality Transparency Index for China, which is a great look into the quality and veracity of emissions data (or lack thereof) provided by city governments in China.

I touched on this issue when I analyzed 10 years of Shanghai’s Air Quality data, but Angel’s post (and the AQTI) give tremendous additional context to my post.  I Won’t ape all of Angel’s post to make my point, so go read it. There are even more troubling reports about the veracity of Chinese environmental statistics, so …

Angel shares some of the results from the AQTI, in which Shanghai is third of the 20 Chinese cities evaluated,

But when compared with other cities world wide, China is still not doing at all well.

This index is a great example of the principal issues facing the Environmental protection and improvement of China: we can’t trust metrics and statistics derived from unreliable data. Which, in turn, means that we can’t reasonably track success or failure, nor do we truly know how bad (or reasonable) the situation might be.  Unfortunately, the extent of this problem goes far beyond just urban air quality.

China Dialogue’s Amy Sim wrote recently about Article 19‘s China Environmental Report: Access to Environmental Information in China: Evaluation of Local Compliance, which is a collaboration of several different Chinese Environmental NGOs. The report analyzes how Municipal Environmental Protection Bureaus (EPBs) in seven cities, including Shanghai, have complied with the SEPA Measures on Open Environmental Information adopted in 2008. Ms. Sim’s article goes into tremendous depth, and the report itself is worth a read.

The reasons given by the EPBs for non-disclosure were usually very brief, such as “inconvenient to disclose”, “difficult to disclose” and “can be easily sensationalised by the media”, without reference to the exception for disclosure stated in the OGI Regulations or considerations of public interest. An NGO based in north China, Hebei Green Concert, was refused pollution data on the basis that they were trade secrets and their disclosure could draw media attention or lead to unnecessary disputes.

The EPBs appear to be unwilling to release pollution information, especially specific data, for fear of affecting economic development or generating bad press. Yet economic development can only be sustainable if environmental impact is minimised. The current approach of prioritising economic development is short-sighted and can undermine the credibility of the environmental authorities.

In Shanghai, the EPB refused to provide information on pollutant-discharge volume, allocation quotas and pollutant disposal on the grounds that the information was not available. But, interestingly, when asked for information on Shanghai Richina Leather, one of the enterprises “blacklisted” in 2009, Shanghai’s EPB disclosed three documents on local environmental behaviour and evaluation standards, environmental data on the firm and its environmental-supervision report. [See chinadialogue’s three-part exposé on Shanghai Richina Leather for more information on the company’s environmental breaches.]

As the quote above suggests, more than mere regulation there is a culture of opacity that will prove difficult to change.  We can only hope that reports and analyses such as these will help China’s various levels of government address their serious opacity problems, because the Chinese government has launched many projects to show that they are leading the world to its sustainable future, chiefly the the Low Carbon Provinces pilot program and their plans to radically change the energy mix before 2020.  These projects will rely on massive piles of data from which metrics and statistics will be calculated prove their success, but those who are watching are already, justifiably, skeptical.  As Samuel Clemens said:

“Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.'”

  • http://hsu.me Angel Hsu

    Thanks for the shout-out, Mark!

    • http://www.markenglehartevans.com/ Mark Englehart Evans

      of course. Care to elaborate on your experiences wrestling with the EPBs? Any luck with Shanghai viz my emissions data?

      • http://hsu.me Angel Hsu

        :). I may have more to say on that later. I’m trying to process this satellite data now and boy am i rusty!