The Access Initiative

Beijing’s Air Quality Highlights the Need for Better Access to Environmental Information

By Elizabeth Moses (Posted: January 31, 2013)

Beijing’s hazardous air quality made the news around the world as the density of PM2.5 particulates surpassed 700 micrograms per cubic meter in many parts of the city on Saturday, January 12th for the first time in memory.

Based on measurements taken from an air-quality monitoring device located on top of the United States Embassy, the Washington Post reported the highest level reached 755, which correspond to a PM2.5 density of 886 micrograms per cubic meter. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality index goes up to only 500, and the agency advises that anything greater than 300 would trigger a health warning of “emergency conditions.” The World Health Organization considers a safe daily level to be 25 micrograms per cubic meter.

But these dangerous levels and the potential health impacts are only part of the story. The lack of information about air pollution and citizen’s demand for better transparency has also made the news. The New York Times reported that in response to this crisis, Chinese citizens are demanding municipal government release more air quality data. The Washington Post reported this public outcry may have helped put pressure on the state run media – which usually avoids criticizing the government on such topics – to run reports and editorials acknowledging the problem and demanding solutions.

These issues are at the heart of WRI’s “Strengthening the Right to Information for People and the Environment” (STRIPE) project. The STRIPE Project seeks to create new, effective opportunities for freedom of information law implementation and improvement in access to information about air and water and pollution control regulation in Thailand and Indonesia in heavily polluted communities. More information about the STRIPE project can be found at

As part of this project WRI brought government and civil society partners from both countries to Washington DC to learn about the latest programs and means to facilitate access to environmental information by citizens. This study tour was an opportunity to build the capacity of partners and consensus on how to move the access to environmental information agenda forward. For more information, see the attached Study Tour outcome document.

As part of our effort to deepen and broaden this work, WRI is hosting a regional meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 29 – May, 2013. Participants will include STRIPE partners, experts from China, Philippines and Mongolia, international governmental agencies, government officials, and freedom of information professionals. We will use this opportunity to reflect on:

  1. The findings of the STRIPE project and draft action plans developed by ICEL to improve access to environmental information in Indonesia to enhance regional understanding of the current status of right of access to environmental information and issues faced by communities and activists.

  2. Possibilities for peer learning about access to environmental information in order to assess the validity of utilizing freedom of information laws to promote proactive release of environmental information (theory for change).

  3. How to share experiences and learning both by government national agencies, donor agencies, freedom of information activists and communities and assess opportunities to expand STRIPE to the invited countries for wider regional impact.

It shouldn’t take life threatening air quality to highlight the importance of better environmental protection and demand for better access to environmental information. But it does illustrate the urgency of the work we are undertaking and the need for strong access to information regimes around the globe.

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