Despite China’s anti-pollution efforts, poor air quality remains “a major concern” for the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing next year, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has said.
In a report on environmental preparations for the Games, UNEP offered praise for China’s commitment of more than U.S. $12 billion for pollution abatement and sustainable development programs aimed at hosting a “Green Olympics” next year.
To reduce pollution, Beijing has assembled a fleet of nearly 3,800 buses that run on compressed natural gas. And by the end of this year, all of the city’s coal-fueled boilers weighing under 20 tons will be converted to use cleaner energy sources, the report said, citing information from the Beijing Environmental Bureau.
China has also raised standards for energy efficiency, begun to phase out ozone-depleting materials, and moved high-polluting industries out of the city.
But while investments in green technologies will have benefits both for the Games and for the long term, the UNEP report said that Beijing’s polluted air remains a problem that may require “more effort…to address the legitimate concerns of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other stakeholders.”
“Sports with short durations would not be a problem, but endurance sports like cycling are examples of competitions that might be postponed or delayed,” IOC president Jacques Rogge said in August.
In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Joanna Lewis—a China environment expert at the Washington-based Pew Center on Global Climate Change—said that Beijing faces major challenges to improve air quality despite its Olympic push.
“There is a lot more that needs to be done to bring Beijing up to the environmental standards of an international or world-class city,” she said.
Lewis said that UNEP findings on particulates, or soot levels, are especially troubling both for Chinese citizens and for Olympic competitors.
Although summer months have the lowest pollution levels of the year, UNEP found that Beijing exceeded World Health Organization (WHO) safety standards for particulates by 200 percent or more during August 2006.
If you look at the actual operations and development of the Olympic facilities, I think that they’ve done a remarkable job of making sure that all the waste treatment and water and so forth are as ‘green’ as they can be. However, outside the bubble of the 2008 Olympics, China has a lot of environmental problems.
“These are the particles that can really get stuck in your lungs and cause respiratory problems. It’s certainly something that athletes would be concerned about,” Lewis said.
Many of China’s anti-pollution plans have relied on shutting down factory production, construction projects, and private cars during and immediately preceding the Games.
But Lewis said that “many, many vehicles” will be coming to Beijing for the events themselves.
Lewis also questioned the long-term environmental benefit of cutting production or shutting down factories during the Olympic Games.
“These are relatively short-term fixes that you would be looking at for the Olympics,” Lewis said. “If they’re shutting a plant down, or they’re reducing the capacity at which it’s operating, they’re not really ‘greening’ Beijing or moving it toward a long-term solution. These are plants that are still going to be used for years to come.”
Daniela Salaverry, co-director of the China Program at Pacific Environment, a San Francisco-based nongovernmental organization, said that Chinese organizers deserve credit for the "greening" of the Games themselves.
“If you look at the actual operations and development of the Olympic facilities,” Salaverry said, “I think that they’ve done a remarkable job of making sure that all the waste treatment and water and so forth are as ‘green’ as they can be.”
“However, outside the bubble of the 2008 Olympics, China has a lot of environmental problems.”
Salaverry said that pollution problems from outside Beijing may intrude during the Olympic Games and that these are likely to continue after the Games end.
“Air pollution, for example, in Beijing: That’s going to continue to get worse just because it’s beyond Beijing where those particulates are coming from. They’re coming from the coal-fired power plants in northeastern China. So it’s more than just a Beijing 2008 issue.”
Original reporting by Michael Lelyveld. Edited for the Web by Richard Finney.