Shanghailanders have enjoyed what, on the surface, appears to be a summer of blue skies. In recent weeks, locals have come to affectionately refer to this as G-20 Blue in light of the upcoming summit in the neighboring city of Hangzhou. News articles have also pointed to an improvement in the country’s air situation as a whole, although Shanghai doesn’t seem to be contributing to this trend. I wanted to find out whether G-20 Blue is just a fleeting dream or something we can hope to look forward to more often.
Readers of John’s Little Green Book will remember a piece I did this time last year. In it, I explored the historical air pollution data for Shanghai from 2013-2015 with a focus on quality of measurement across different apps. Well, with another year gone it’s time to take a look at what the data’s telling us. First, let’s focus on the past year itself.
My methodology is the same as before. I’ve taken the monthly air quality index (AQI) from an average of daily readings separately from the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai and the Shanghai Ministry of Environmental Protection (which often have discrepant readings). Broadly, the figures are giving us the same information as well. Pollution peaks in the colder months as China becomes enveloped in a blanket of coal smog, levels dip during the temperate months of spring, and then are typically lowest in the tail end of summer.
Now we come to the more important question: are Shanghai’s skies getting bluer overall? Sure, the science I’m using here isn’t perfect, but I’ve taken the monthly readings and averaged them between the Consulate and Ministry. From there, it’s easy to overlay each year and through the magic of television you have…
Well…that’s not exactly what I was expecting! With the exception of December 2013 (which, many will recall, was the airpocalypse winter brought on by sandstorms in the Gobi Desert), the past year is actually more polluted than those before it. Even during the G-20 clean up, air pollution for summer is still higher than at any time in the past four years. Granted, all of these figures – even the best ones – are still well above World Health Organization recommendations for safe breathing. The most interesting part of all, though, is that both the provincial and national governments have made their strongest push for reducing air pollution over the past several years, but the numbers don’t seem to be adding up. Are factory moves, congestion pricing, and eating less meat really doing enough to solve this most critical of burdens for China?