Some people have been wondering what air pollution looks like in real life, so I decided to snap some pictures from my window. I live on the 31st floor on busy Beijing street and my window points north to Snake mountain 长虫山. At different times of day, I get a good idea of what pollution looks like, and I’d like to share.

Air quality is expressed in AQI (Air Quality Index), and our first picture shows a pretty much haze-free, beautiful clear day. The (American) AQI index is at 39, and you can easily distinguish detail on the mountains at the horizon. The recommendation is to do anything you like. At the bottom of the picture you can see one of the culprits of much of Kunming’s current pollution: the construction of a city-wide underground rail network. Another polluter runs straight through the picture: the traffic on Beijing street. With Kunming greatly encouraging car ownership, and cars generally using dirtier fuel than elsewhere in the world, the pollution peaks at 6-9am, when everyone wants to go to work, and at 4-6pm, when everyone gets back. Other polluters, like factories and coal plants, are not visible here.

AQI Index 39: 9.4µg of PM2.5/m3
AQI Index 39: 9.4µg of PM2.5/m3

Picture two is a little more problematic. The horizon is decidedly blurred and detail from the mountains is gone, although you can still easily make out colour on their faces. With an AQI index of 137, sensitive people are recommended to stay in and avoid exercise. Everyone else can carry on doing what they’re doing.

AQI Index 137: 50.1µg of PM2.5/m3
AQI Index 137: 50.1µg of PM2.5/m3

At picture three, we’ve got a serious pollution problem, even though inhabitants of Beijing will mock me for this. The mountains in the distance become difficult to make out and there’s a visible grey coating covering the rest of the city. When the sun’s not in the right position, the mountains become invisible. At 169 AQI, the American standard says “very unhealthy” and urges anyone to avoid exercise and elderly people to stay in at all costs.

AQI Index 169: 90.4µg of PM2.5/m3
AQI Index 169: 90.4µg of PM2.5/m3

Different pollution standards

AQI values seem a a little arbitrary. Generally, it reflects the concentration of particulate matter smaller than 2.5µm in a cubic metre of air. However, as I was comparing pollution values on our smartphones with friends, we quickly found out that at the same time and place, we received very different results.

When we investigated further, we discovered that there are two AQI standards: one is mainland Chinese and one is American. Some applications offer the chance to switch between the two. The Chinese AQI standard is way more relaxed than the American standard. For example, an American index of 131 (47.7µg/cm: a concentration where sensitive people are advised to stay indoors and avoid exercise) is equal to a Chinese index of 66 (where only unusually sensitive people are advised not to exercise).

It looks like the iPhone AQI application only shows the Chinese standard, whereas the Android AQI application, though visually a lot less appealing, defaults to the American standard with the option of displaying the PRC-approved one.

Fortunately, Kunming rarely reaches levels where the air quality is considered “extremely unhealthy” or “dangerous”, but the situation is quickly worsening. Chris Horton, once a legendary inhabitant of Kunming and founder of expat and news site, pointed out how pictures taken for the website a few years back would be so unrecognisably haze-free.

And you, Europe?

The West has reprimanded China a long time for not revealing their PM2.5 pollutant levels, only concentrating on PM10, SO and ozone. China has responded by publicly making this data available, regardless of how reliable this data actually is. But funnily enough, official PM2.5 levels for European cities are impossible to find. You’d think the European Union would at least monitor these levels and make them publicly available. No such thing.

It may be easy for all Europeans to blame China for its disgusting skies, but our citizens actually have no idea how bad their own cities are. I hope the governments will quickly release this data. We may not like the results.

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