China Environmental News Digest

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Will Beijing's Air Cast Pall Over Olympics?

The Wall Street Journal By SHAI OSTER February 15, 2007; Page B1

City Moves to Cut Pollution,But Neighboring Provinces Could Balk at Restrictions

BEIJING -- The 2008 Summer Olympics isn't the only thing looming on Beijing's horizon. There's also a lot of pollution from neighbors clouding the city's air.

Even if the city does all that it can, Beijing officials have recently acknowledged that without the cooperation of nearby provinces such as Shanxi, Shandong, Inner Mongolia and Hebei, there's a good chance that China's promise of a green Olympics will instead be a hazy shade of gray.

[Olympics Slideshow promo]1
In 2004, two runners died during Beijing's marathon.

These neighboring provinces are among the most polluted regions in the world, infamous for coal mining, power plants, cement plants and steel coking. These are all pillar industries that are essential to fueling China's growth but unfortunately rely on burning huge amounts of dirty coal.

Even if Beijing shuts down all its factories, bans all nonessential traffic and orders everyone to turn down air conditioning, Chinese and foreign scientists say there is no way to keep the winds from carrying pollution across the borders.

All that has started to worry some of the world's elite athletes, who are preparing to compete here in 2008. Last summer, for example, British doctors tested runners taking part in the World Junior Championships held in downtown venues that will be used for the Olympics. The results showed that on Monday, after factories were closed for the weekend, athletes were unaffected -- but as the week continued, air quality quickly sank.

"I don't think we're likely to see any world records in the marathon," says Marco Cardinale, a doctor who is the research manager of the British Olympics Association, referring to the upcoming Olympic event in Beijing. Pollution could trigger asthmatic attacks in susceptible athletes and take a toll on those who spend a lot of time outdoors. "It's not only the air quality, but the heat and humidity combined with poor air quality. I think it's very unlikely we'll see outstanding performance in endurance sports," says Dr. Cardinale.

So far, the U.S. Olympics Committee says that it's monitoring air quality in China but is not advising changes in training routines. Some U.S. running coaches are reviewing the measures taken to deal with competing in the Athens Olympics, where air quality was also a concern.


To tackle Beijing's pollution, officials have formed a high-level group on China's state council, or cabinet, to work on reducing pollution levels from nearby provinces.

He Kebin, a scientist at China's prestigious Tsinghua University, is advising the Beijing officials on how to keep clean. It's a tough job, he readily admits, especially because of rising awareness of the environment. For example, expectations will be higher for Beijing than when the Games were held in 1984 in Los Angeles, which had similar smog problems. Even if Beijing's air is within China's national safety limits, the pollution would still be some two to three times worse than what someone in New York is used to. "Someone from Miami or Hawaii would think New York is dirty. But if they come here? There's a difference between regulations and what people expect," says Mr. He.

The stakes are high for Beijing. The Olympics are being cast as a kind of coming-out party for China, a chance for this rising power to showcase its economic, technological and cultural might. Tens of thousands of reporters will be attending, along with perhaps two million other visitors, in what may be the biggest influx of outsiders the Chinese capital has ever seen. Chinese authorities are trying to avoid a public-relations disaster like what happened on a smaller scale in Hong Kong last year, when marathoners collapsed after running in heavily polluted air.

To get the Olympics in 2001, China promised to reduce concentrations of dangerous pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrous dioxide and ozone to within World Health Organization accepted levels. China also pledged to keep concentrations of particulate matter, a component of smog, down to levels similar to major cities in developed countries. Scientists say that ozone and fine particulate matter are especially dangerous.

Currently, Beijing fails on all counts. Thick, soup-like haze coats buildings -- and lungs -- many days of the year, despite claims that two-thirds of the year are "blue days," or at national standards. Studies have shown that during the summer months, pollution levels can spike to at least two to three times the level considered safe in the U.S. or by the WHO. For fine particulate matter, considered dangerous at any level by the WHO, Beijing has levels routinely three to four times as high as recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

[Beijing's Air Quality]

Teams of scientists are now busy working on the problem. They are modeling pollution flows to figure out just where dirty air is coming from -- and what parts of China will essentially have to be shut down to guarantee pollution won't overwhelm the Games.

Beijing has already improved its air quality dramatically from the dismal days of the late 1990s by taking a series of measures. City officials have banned nearly all power plants from downtown and switched from coal to natural- gas-fired heating. The government has even forced Shougang Corp., China's third-biggest steelmaker, which supplies jobs, tax revenue and a big chunk of the city's pollution, to move to an island hundreds of miles away. Construction this month starts on a new, multibillion-dollar plant. The city is trying to figure out what to do with the roughly 80,000 workers at the current plant and how to use the huge old building once it's abandoned.

But Beijing has another problem: citizens' rampant love of cars that is putting thousands more vehicles on crowded streets each month. In the past half-dozen years, China has also been adding more polluting heavy industries. The city can try to address that by banning cars from large areas of the city and closing the remaining factories.

[Plant Photo]
The Shougang Corp. plant, now a major Beijing polluter, is moving.

At the city's border, Mr. He and others are working to figure out how much of neighboring China needs to be shut down and for how long. "Controlling only local sources in Beijing will not be sufficient to attain the air-quality goal set for the Beijing Olympics," said David Streets of the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, in a recent report. According to the study, the surrounding regions account for up to 70% of some types of pollution over Beijing, depending on the season and weather patterns.

Mr. Streets, in an interview, said China must focus beyond Beijing. "They've really cleaned up already quite a bit," he says. "There's a need to cast the net further afield and take measures in other provinces."

Getting that cooperation won't be easy. Hebei the province surrounding the capital, can't afford to cripple its economy by shuttering large swaths of its industry for an event it won't likely get much benefit from. Already, the two areas have scuffled over water sources, as when Beijing dammed a river for factory use four years ago.

Despite all of the challenges, some say there is still room for optimism. "China is capable of improving its air quality rather rapidly," says Jill Geer, director of communications for the sports governing body USA Track and Field. "They did it for the 2001 World University Games, where the air quality was bad right up until the games. It cleared up a day or two before the event began."

One other thing has Beijing's planners twisted in knots of anxiety. For the opening ceremony, they have chosen the date 8/8/08 at 8 p.m., considered especially auspicious because the number eight is believed to bring fortune and luck in traditional Chinese culture.

But what if it rains?

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