Olympics Haven't Helped Environment

China’s preparations for the Beijing Olympics have failed to produce long-term environmental gains, analysts say, as pollution grows along with construction for the games.
Michael Lelyveld
Share on WhatsApp
Share on WhatsApp

BOSTONThis summer’s Olympics Games are unlikely to bring China the environmental benefits that supporters expected when Beijing won its bid for the event seven years ago, experts say.

Although Beijing has spent some U.S. $16 billion on its “Green Olympics” campaign, air pollution is still hazardous, often exceeding World Health Organization safety limits by a factor of three, two analysts said in the current issue of the policy journal Foreign Affairs.

“Many athletes are planning to take precautions, such as arriving in Beijing as late as possible, coming well equipped with medication for possible asthma attacks, and wearing masks once there,” wrote Council on Foreign Relations experts Elizabeth Economy and Adam Segal in article titled “China’s Olympic Nightmare: What the Games Mean for Beijing’s Future.”

Government authorities planned a long list of improvements to coincide with the Games, such as forcing high-polluting factories to move outside the city, stopping construction and ordering cars off the streets. But visitors to Beijing last week found the air still thick with smog, despite recent claims by the Ministry of Environmental Protection that
China’s sulfur dioxide emissions dropped 4.6 percent last year.

Some of the “green” plans turned into half-measures as many factories agreed to reduce production but refused to shut down, the authors wrote. Longer-term benefits
have also failed to materialize because of familiar growth pressures, Segal said in an interview after returning from Beijing.

“You can think of it as both a lost opportunity, in trying to change some of these systemic problems, and also reinforcing some of the worst patterns of governance in China,” Segal told Radio Free Asia.

Another major project

In the absence of major environmental progress, the Olympics has turned into another mammoth mobilization and construction project such as the Three Gorges Dam, in part because the government knows how to marshall resources for major projects, said Segal.

“The leadership just felt most comfortable with thinking about the Olympics as construction goals that had to be met in a certain time period, and that in many ways they could demonstrate their success in efficient governance by meeting those construction goals way ahead of schedule,” he said.

But in the process, the authorities may have only added to China’s pollution problems with new construction and infrastructure projects that required vast volumes of cement, aluminum and steel.

Cement in particular has been the source of China’s environmental problems, which are highlighted in a new report by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. In a study released last week, the organization found that China’s production of carbon dioxide (CO2) made it the world’s biggest source of the gas linked to global warming, surpassing U.S. emissions by 14 percent last year.

Cement manufacturing is one of the main culprits, according to the Dutch agency, which estimates that China accounts for about half of all the cement production in the world. The manufacturing process, including fuel use for cement kilns, represents nearly 20 percent of China’s CO2 emissions, the study said.

China’s demand for fuel and coal-fired power for construction has become a worldwide concern because of the environmental effects. The report found that China accounted for over 70 percent of the world’s growth in coal consumption last year.

Global warming

Joanna Lewis, senior international fellow at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Virginia, said the figures focus on the need for China’s cooperation to fight global warming.

“There’s no question that China’s emissions are growing at a very rapid rate and the studies coming out are calling a lot of attention to China and putting a lot of pressure on them to take the climate change issue seriously,” Lewis told RFA.

Lewis believes that China is starting to take the problem more seriously, despite its arguments that industrialized nations have been responsible for the bulk of CO2 emissions in the past. Even so, basic policy problems of energy subsidies, consumption growth and coal burning have yet to be addressed, said Lewis, who also returned from Beijing last week. “Coal is really at the heart of their problems,” she said.

Lewis said there is no doubt that the Olympics have turned into another a big construction project that has strained resources and increased emissions.

“It would be a false hope to have thought that the Olympics could have revolutionized the way that China looks at environmental issues,” she said. “But I think that one thing we will see is that the Olympics will be calling attention to the environmental situation in China.”

If air pollution during the Games is as bad as it was last week and athletes have difficulty breathing, the problems will cause the government to rethink a lot of its environmental and energy policies, Lewis said.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.