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Chinese Factories Are Ordered to Release Data on Real-Time Emission Levels

Smoke billows from steel slags at a Chongqing Iron & Steel factory

Photograph by China Photos/Getty Images

Smoke billows from steel slags at a Chongqing Iron & Steel factory

In a surprising sign of progress for both the environment and information transparency in China, the central government in January ordered 15,000 large and small factories to make real-time data about air and water pollution public.

While the data on urban air pollution levels–such as that provided by the U.S. Embassy’s @BeijingAir Twitter (TWTR) feed–is helpful for city residents to decide whether to wear face masks or keep children indoors, streaming data about individual factory emissions levels is critical for identifying, and hopefully cracking down on, heavy polluters.

The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), a Beijing-based environmental nonprofit, and Renmin University’s Institute of Environment and Planning have begun to jointly analyze available emissions data. The good news is that “significant progress has since been made in how China publishes information and provides emergency warnings,” the two groups wrote in a statement (PDF).

The bad news is that “a group of major emitters, including thermal power plants and steel factories, are seriously exceeding pollution discharge limits.” Yet at least it’s possible to quickly identify major environmental offenders and begin to exert targeted pressure for improvement.

Another conclusion that can be drawn from the new emissions data is that Beijing’s smog problem is not the city’s alone. Pollution generated in nearby Hebei province and Tianjin city is frequently blown by wind into China’s capital. Simply tightening controls on factory emissions and fuel standards within Beijing, which already has fairly progressive policies, will not be enough to clear the smog. “The understanding of pollution sources must also be expanded to regional analysis, rather than just individual cities,” the IPE and Renmin University wrote in their statement. While China’s air hasn’t yet been cleaned, our understanding of the problem is now a bit clearer.

Larson is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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