As Beijing prepares to host the Olympics in 2008, experts say that China is making little progress in cleaning up its polluted air.
Despite official promises, the environment is still taking a back seat as the country burns more coal to meet its soaring electricity demand.
Beijing won the Olympic competition in July 2001 over cities including Paris, Toronto, Istanbul, and Osaka, Japan, after promising major steps to clean up its air so athletes won't suffer during the games.
But the capital is showing few signs of improvement. In January, the official China Daily and the state-run Web site china.org.cn reported that Beijing saw only eight clear days during a 22-day period.
Experts said the challenge of the Olympics hasn't led to the environmental changes that citizens and advocates hoped would occur.
Elizabeth Economy—director of Asia studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations and author of The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenges to China’s Future —said that in the four years since Beijing was selected, city residents have seen few environmental efforts or gains.
Overall, there’s a push to clean up factories nationwide, but it’s difficult,
“Even the Chinese people . . . have placed Beijing way down low on the list of cities that they would like to live in,” Economy said.
In efforts aimed at short-term air improvement for the Games themselves, Beijing is expected to halt construction projects and to ban private vehicle traffic during the events.
The city has also started moving steel plants and other factories outside city limits to ease pollution from coal.
Moving these factories has not proved to be “the boon to air quality” that was hoped for, though, Economy said. “Because in some cases they may be moving them to neighboring provinces, but they’re still getting some trans-provincial air pollution.”
Douglas Ogden—director of the China Sustainable Energy Program at the Energy Foundation, a nonprofit advisory group with offices in San Francisco and Beijing—said that curbs on industrial pollution in China have been hard to enforce.
“Overall, there’s a push to clean up factories nationwide, but it’s difficult,” Ogden said.
Most of the larger state-owned enterprises tend to be able to pollute without a lot of oversight from the environmental protection bureaus,
“Most of the larger state-owned enterprises tend to be able to pollute without a lot of oversight from the environmental protection bureaus,” he continued.
Ogden also pointed, though, to new efforts like the creation of express bus lanes for mass transit in Beijing and to plans to adopt new standards for cleaner gasoline.
At the national level, China has set a goal of becoming 20 percent more energy efficient by 2010 as a part of its 11th Five-Year Plan.
Achievement of this goal would help the country’s environment, Ogden said.
But near-term benefits for the Games are doubtful. Elizabeth Economy said China often sets hard targets for itself in connection with “big events.”
“But again, the truth is that they become so focused on the moment of getting in or winning the big prize that oftentimes the follow-through is weak.”
Original reporting by Michael Lelyveld. Edited for the Web by Richard Finney.