2013 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Erica Keen Thomas and the China Air Monitoring Team

Collected and publicly shared data that revealed dangerous air pollution levels in Chinese cities, increasing public awareness of the health risks and causing the Chinese government to confront the issue.

Noxious, choking air pollution has smothered Beijing and other major Chinese cities for years, making it difficult for people to breathe and causing an estimated 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010 alone. But until recently, the Chinese government routinely dismissed the public health risk.

A major cause of China’s gray skies was publicly revealed when the Environment, Science, Technology and Health Section at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, currently led by Erica Thomas, placed a single air monitor on top of the embassy to take their own air pollution readings, and then began publishing that information on Twitter for American citizens living there.

The move resulted not only in Americans using the data to try to reduce their exposure to harmful air pollution, but Chinese citizens and other foreign residents in Beijing also became aware of the extent of the problem.

The access to real time air pollution data along with relevant U.S.-approved health advisories generated enough public pressure within China for the Chinese government to adopt improved measurement standards beginning in 2016, and for the city of Beijing and 73 other municipal authorities to begin reporting more accurate daily readings starting in 2012. In January 2013, when some Chinese cities experienced record-breaking air pollution levels, the Chinese government urged residents to take precautions, representing a significant shift in environmental and health policy.

“I’ve never seen an initiative of the U.S. government have such an immediate, dramatic impact in a country,” said U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke. “We engage the Chinese government and people on a wide range of issues from human rights to the rule of law. The response by the Chinese people and government on the environment has been unprecedented.”

“In January, when we had many days of obscenely bad air pollution, even the government newspapers had editorials demanding that something be done,” said Locke.

There is currently a heated internal debate within China regarding tougher pollution controls, but obstacles remain and progress has been slow due to domestic economic and political factors.

A study published in April 2013 in Lancet, the British medical journal, reported that outdoor air pollution in China contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010. The New York Times reported the same month that parents are confining sons and daughters to their homes, schools are canceling outdoor activities and field trips, and some middle- and upper-class Chinese parents and expatriates have begun leaving China because of the pollution.

The U.S. effort initially began in 2008 when Virginia Curran, who previously worked in the embassy’s environment section, began examining and monitoring Beijing’s air quality data. Thomas took over the program and worked with her colleagues to move ahead to ensure it was expanded to other cities with American consulates, including Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Shenyang.

The Chinese government publicly accused officials at the U.S. Embassy and its consulates of illegally interfering in China’s domestic affairs, asserting they had no authority to monitor China’s environment, let alone publicly release the data.

The U.S. ambassador described Thomas and her team as “very forward-thinking” and said they have made sure that the Chinese government and the public “could not question the accuracy, the integrity or the applicability of the information we’re presenting to them.”

Despite early efforts by the Chinese government to block access to the data, smartphone users could still download an application that displayed air quality readings from their local government and the U.S. Embassy side-by-side, and prominent users of China’s hybrid version of Twitter and Facebook, with millions of followers, regularly reposted the State Department’s air quality data.

“This team was very skilled. They knew the technical issues, and they knew how to push the effort ahead,” said Robert Wang, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. “They are all very much focused because they saw this project having real consequences, not just in the American community, but in terms of Chinese policies.”

Locke said U.S. embassies all over the world now want to replicate the work of Thomas and her team, noting that the staff has been developing new software that can be used worldwide.

Wang said he was pleased that China has stopped criticizing the U.S. and is now focused on publishing its own real time data throughout the country. He said the bottom line is that the public release of regular data from the embassy and consulates has informed American and Chinese citizens about the air pollution dangers.

“Although the Chinese standards are not as stringent as in the United States, there is now some positive movement,” said Wang. “Everyone is much more aware of China’s air pollution problems and actions to address them are increasing.”