Bad Air Dims Olympic Effort

China mulls new emergency measures to achieve "blue skies" as the Olympics approach, but experts say the event is a false test of the country's environmental progress.
By Michael Lelyveld
2008-08-01
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BOSTON--Beijing hopes it has broken its string of "bad air days" in time for the start of the Summer Olympics, but experts say the event is not China's most important environmental test.

After seven years of preparation, organizers suffered a setback two weeks before the opening ceremonies when a haze of polluted air shrouded the city for six days starting on July 23.

Cameras captured the sooty skies during the official opening of the Olympic Athlete's Village on July 27, when "the complex was invisible from the nearby main Olympic Green," the Associated Press said.

The air quality fell below safety standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO) until July 29, according to ABC News, although Beijing's Environmental Protection Bureau said its readings failed to meet what it called "blue sky" conditions for only four days.

China's clean-air standards differ from the stricter standards of the WHO. China allows more than twice the concentration of heavy particulates, or soot particles, in residential areas and over three times the amount in high-traffic zones, according to a study by the WHO and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Some Olympic athletes have said they plan to wear masks to keep the particles out of their lungs.

But China pledged to meet both standards for the Games, which open Aug. 8. "Under normal meteorological conditions, air quality during the Olympics will meet the national and World Health Organization standards," the environmental bureau's deputy director, Du Shaozhong, told China's official Xinhua news agency in February. "We will fulfill the environmental commitment we made when bidding for the Games."

A mixed reaction

The polluted skies drew a mixed reaction from Chinese officials, government agencies and the press.

The conditions "dampened people's mood and undermined a newly-built confidence in the city's air quality," Xinhua reported on July 29. But Du challenged the photographic evidence of pollution, saying that "pictures cannot reflect reality."

"They are not accurate," Du said. "I really urge you not to use photos to base your assessment of air quality."

While a brief rain brought relief from the worst conditions, officials prepared a new set of emergency measures in case the bad air returns. Under these measures, officials could force 90 percent of the cars off the road, based on their license plate numbers, instead of 50 percent under the even-odd system imposed on July 20. More factory shutdowns and restrictions in neighboring provinces are possible, the official China Daily said.

Whether or not the government achieves what it considers "blue sky" conditions for the Games, the focus on appearances and an Olympic cleanup misses the point, environmental experts told Radio Free Asia.

"The Chinese government has invested a lot of money to try to make this a green Olympics, but in large part they've focused on the wrong things," said Elizabeth Economy, Asia studies director at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Economy said the government has concentrated on "showcase projects" like buildings and Olympic venues that demonstrate "green" technology with new parks and trees.

"These are all wonderful, but when it comes to cleaning up the air, they really didn't put an emphasis on that," said Economy, author of the book The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenges to China's Future.

'Stopgap measures'

Changes in China's energy policies have been slow in coming, despite years of controversy over their environmental impact. The country burns 2.5 billion tons of high-polluting coal annually, more than twice as much as any other country, yet it suffers from coal shortages as power plants struggle to meet ever-growing demand.

"So now, what you have is some very draconian and stopgap measures to try to produce some blue skies for the weeks of the Olympics," Economy said. "But of course, it hasn't addressed the underpinnings of what's causing this pollution."

Daniela Salaverry, co-director of the China program at Pacific Environment, a San Francisco-based nongovernmental organization, agrees that whether or not Beijing sees blue skies for the Games, the event is a false test of the country's progress in fighting pollution.

"What's important to recognize is that China's a huge country with many environmental challenges," said Salaverry. "The efforts that have taken place in Beijing should really be scaled up so that such pollution controls and improvements can really be seen across China."

Beijing officials are under pressure to deliver positive images under the spotlight of world attention, but China's environmental problems have already been an issue of global concern for years, she said.

"There are certainly longer-term problems, and their solutions must also be long-term," said Salaverry. "All of these are huge environmental challenges that China's facing. After the Olympics end, they will continue to be dealing with these issues."

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