China's government has promised new steps to measure and mitigate air pollution after rising complaints about its "blue sky" claims.
On Dec. 21, Environmental Protection Minister Zhou Shengxian said new air quality standards should be published "as soon as possible," the official English-language China Daily reported.
New measurements to be phased in starting this year will include monitoring of smaller particles, or particulates, of soot, known as PM2.5, Zhou said.
Until now, authorities have only been counting concentrations of larger PM10 particles measuring 10 microns, or thousandths of a millimeter.
The partial reports have allowed the government to paint rosy pictures of China's air quality when heavy smog hangs over cities like Beijing.
On Dec. 18, Beijing's Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau reported the city had met its annual target of 274 "blue sky days," despite weeks of the worst pollution the capital has witnessed in years.
Citizen complaints and the loss of credibility appear to have changed the government's mind on the need for realistic standards, particularly since reports of "hazardous" PM2.5 levels have been posted by U.S. Embassy monitors at twitter.com/#!/BeijingAir.
"It's because of public pressure," said Kevin Jianjun Tu, senior associate at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "There has been an Internet outcry for the authorities to take more concrete action to deal with this problem."
The problem is more than one of appearances, since the smaller unreported particles are "more dangerous" and likely to lodge in the lungs, according to the World Health Organization. In a 2007 World Bank study, China's urban air pollution was blamed for up to 400,000 premature deaths per year.
Zhou said cities in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, the Yangtze River and Pearl River deltas, Chongqing municipality and provincial capitals would all monitor PM2.5 and ozone starting in 2012.
The new rule would gradually be adopted nationally.
"The deadline is Jan. 1, 2016," said Zhou. "By then, the new air quality standards will apply to the whole country, and the monitoring results should be made public."
But there are already doubts about whether the public will tolerate such a delay in disclosing information that has already been withheld for years.
"I don't believe the public will be satisfied with the current development," Tu told RFA. But the bigger problem is that PM2.5 emissions will be hard for the government to control.
Coal-fired power plants, cars and construction have all pushed pollution to unhealthful levels, making it sensitive to release the reports before the readings improve.
"They couldn't directly publish the data, otherwise the authorities would be embarrassed by the results," said Tu.
The importance of pollution issues to social stability was demonstrated in December during protests against the expansion of a coal-fired power plant in the Haimen township of southern Guangdong province's Shantou city.
Villagers complained that emissions from the existing plant have increased cancer cases, decreased fish catches and harmed the environment.
After four days of protests and attempts to disperse the crowds with tear gas, city authorities were forced to suspend the project, Xinhua reported.
Tu said that while political demonstrations are seen as dangerous, environmental protests are considered more acceptable. But governments may have more trouble dealing with them as a result.
"It's more difficult for the local authorities to respond.
They need to comply with environmental regulations in order to satisfy the local residents," he said.
There are already signs that some cities may try to get ahead of the problem by setting earlier deadlines for reporting PM2.5 than those announced by Minister Zhou.
Last week, China Daily said Shanghai is likely to start publishing daily reports on PM2.5 levels in 2012. According to the paper, the city's environmental monitoring center has already been measuring PM2.5 levels under a pilot program since 2005.
The monitors reportedly found that Shanghai's air quality failed to meet "Grade 2" national standards from 2006 to 2010 on China's scale of one to five, with Grade 5 as the worst.
Such reports of previously undisclosed findings may spur even greater demands. The tougher task will be to reconcile pollution complaints with energy needs in a country that accounts for nearly half the world's consumption of coal, according to the International Energy Agency.
But there are signs that the government is taking complaints seriously following the smog crisis and the unrest in Guangdong.
On Dec. 20, Vice Premier Li Keqiang told a national conference in Beijing that the government would provide "a favorable environment with clear water, blue skies and uncontaminated soil."
At the conference, provincial governors and heads of state-owned enterprises were required to sign liability statements for meeting pollution targets by 2015, China Daily said.
Minister Zhou announced a goal of cutting sulfur dioxide and chemical oxygen demand by 2 percent in 2012 and achieving zero-growth of smog-forming nitrogen oxides (NOx). He conceded that NOx emissions had jumped 7.2 percent in the first nine months of 2011.
On Dec. 27. the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) also said it will start publishing indexes of greenhouse gas emissions and energy efficiency on a pilot basis. "It is a challenge and new responsibility for the NBS," said director Ma Jiantang.
Over the past year, the government has reported its progress on reducing energy waste only at irregular intervals. In December, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) conceded that its 2011 goals for improving energy efficiency would be "hard to achieve."