By Hu Ching

Transparency in politics, commonly synonymous with openness of information, is often credited with improving governmental accountability. Open knowledge is paramount for checks and balances; an informed citizenry protected by the freedoms of democracy—aided by an independent press—is arguably the strongest arsenal against corruption or official misbehavior.

Governmental transparency can arguably better serve other aspects of societal welfare as well. In Beijing, where air pollution has recently made headlines, an angry populace—from persistent activists to concerned parents who have recently joined the fray—is increasingly vocal in pushing for greater transparency of environmental data. The Chinese government has, for years, denied the severity of pollution in its capital. Official parlance has from time to time identified smog as fog. Yet as hospitals get increasingly congested with young children and elderly folk seeking medical attention for pollution- induced respiratory problems, the authorities have come under heavy pressure to introduce new pollution readings at the beginning of this year.

Further pressure has come from the US embassy’s publication of hourly air quality readings on Twitter. It records them independently using a measuring device on its rooftop. The embassy’s account has often differed from official data released by Chinese authorities.

The daily smog experienced by Beijing residents is caused largely by particulate matter suspended in the lower atmosphere. Two common man made sources of these minute particles are the coal-burning factories that power China’s economy, and the millions of cars that clog Beijing’s roads. The World Health Organization recommends a safe level of 20 micrograms of PM10 (particulate matter smaller than 10 microns in diameter) per cubic metre of sampled air. The average PM10 reading in the Chinese capital last year—at 120 micrograms—was six times higher, according to the Xinhua news agency.

Increased transparency in the dissemination of official pollution measurements will be welcome in a city which had to ban half of its cars from the roads, in a last-ditch effort to clean its air in time for the 2008 Summer Olympics. The release of more official pollution readings will mean that state authorities can no longer continue to deny the problem. Residents, generally speaking,  hope that the release of information will paves the way for stricter legislative measures to improve air quality.

Over two thousand miles south of Beijing lies Singapore, another Asian city similarly known for its economic prowess. Unlike Beijing, however, Singapore is worlds apart in terms of environmental quality. While elite Beijingers might leave their hometown for greener (and cleaner) pastures in Canada or Australia, Singapore attracts well qualified expatriates from across the world with its renowned high-quality physical environment. In the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2011 Asian Green City Index, Singapore was ranked top.

Singapore’s average PM10 reading for 2008 was 57 micrograms/cubic metre, which does not strictly meet the WHO’s recommended safe level. But it is considerably lower than that of Beijing.

Given that Singaporeans inhale relatively clean air (arguably the cleanest in Asia, and comparable to European capitals like Vienna and Berlin), they should be a contented lot. Yet it is not widely publicized that people in Singapore don’t all enjoy the same air quality. Beneath the overarching picture of a clean environment underlies great inequality. This cannot be addressed unless we think harder and deeper about what transparency really entails.

While conducting research in Singapore for my undergraduate dissertation, I found out that adopting different methods of collecting air quality measurements may lead to some astonishing results, with serious policy implications.

After analyzing 3,421 minutes of personally collected air quality data, I concluded that particulate matter, as indicated by particulate number concentration (PNC), varies significantly and consistently across space. This can happen even between two localities within a close proximity. In addition, socioeconomic status affects individual exposure to PNC levels. This means that less well-off Singaporeans are exposed to greater levels of pollution than their wealthier counterparts.

For example, residents of a typical public housing estate (in which 75% of Singaporeans reside) are exposed to up to 2.8 times more ambient PNC levels than those in a typical private housing estate (typically homes to the better-off). Public transport users, I found, were exposed to at least 2.9 times higher mean PNC levels than private vehicle motorists. In a country where only the wealthiest can afford private vehicles, we see a recurring pattern of environmental inequality along socioeconomic lines. Lower income residents are similarly exposed to greater pollution in residential, working, and even shopping environments.

My study further showed that only weak negative correlations exist between sampled PNC levels and government-published air quality readings. (They are only available in particulate mass—but not number— concentration.) This implies that governmental readings do not adequately inform the public on PNC disparities in environmental quality between the rich and the poor.

These findings not only have serious implications on the issue of environmental justice, but also call us to reconsider our expectations of governmental transparency. In Beijing, demands for transparency call for the release of accurate particu late concentration readings. Yet field data from Singapore show that this is hardly enough.

Government agencies choose the locations of monitoring stations, the number of these monitoring stations, and the metric used to measure air quality. Since, as my study showed, air quality varies considerably across space, governments can—by placing monitoring stations away from roads and industries, and nearer to nature reserves and beaches—systematically improve the readings without improving actual air quality. Similarly, by adopting the commonly used metric of particulate mass concentration for measurement, and by extrapolating data collected at single sources to represent city-wide air quality, agencies can mask underlying environmental inequalities cast across the physical and socio economic landscapes of cities.

I am not arguing that the transparent dissemination of air quality information is not significant. In Beijing, this already represents an important step toward cleaner air. But this is merely the tip of the political transparency iceberg. The methods which government currently use to measure air quality are not cast in stone, as unmalleable laws of nature. Monitoring stations need not be placed or limited to where they currently are. Particulate matter pollution does not have to be measured using mass concentration. Measurement is an intrinsically socially constructed concept; hence its execution may be manipulated by political power.

In demanding greater transparency, we ought to think about what we don’t know and what we need to know. This means questioning the widely accepted conventions, assumptions, and norms that state agencies use to carry out even the mundane measurements of air quality.

This article was first published in the Fall 2014 issue of The Paris Globalist.