China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Beijing Battles for a Blue-Sky Olympics

With athlete health and China’s image on the line, the capital city is scrambling to improve air quality before the 2008 games. So far, enormous efforts have yielded mixed results.

By staff reporter Luo Changping

For four days in August, Zhao Fengtong queued for buses and squeezed into subway trains with millions of his neighbors.

As deputy mayor of Beijing, Zhao was participating in a citywide effort to slash vehicle traffic and sweep away smog from the capital’s notorious air, exactly one year ahead of the 2008 Olympics.

Air pollution is Beijing’s biggest concern for the approaching games, and Zhao was busy running tests and monitoring traffic through August and September.

His work was part of an enormous, multi-billion dollar effort to clear Beijing’s skies for the games and perhaps, as many hope, permanently. Despite mixed results so far, the effort is expected to pick up steam – with measures ranging from factory shutdowns to traffic restrictions – as the Olympics countdown continues.

After about half the city’s vehicles were banned every day during an experiment August 17 to 20, according to an odd-even license plate system, Zhao told Caijing that the government’s environmental tests had provided good reference points for both the Olympics and urban planners working on environmental and transportation goals.

Zhao’s bus-and-train experience also had a positive outcome, as city officials proudly reported that the traffic controls resulted in four consecutive days of relatively clean, “Level B” air – the second best of five quality levels.

A much larger experiment during the third week of September was declared a success as well, with residents in 108 cities parking cars and riding public transportation during a nationwide campaign.

As China marked its first official “no auto day” September 22, Beijing optimistically reported an air quality index that topped at 99, below the “slightly polluted” mark of 100.

The next evening, Zhao and a famous actor staged a public relations show by cutting off power to a department store in Beijing’s Wang Fu Jing shopping district. The shutoff saved 1.5 million watts in 30 minutes – a gesture that Zhao said underscored the government’s determination to save energy.

Whose standard for air quality?

Yet clouds of doubt and troubling statistics have shadowed Beijing’s effort to clear the air.

Beijing officials predicted good fortune on August 8 – exactly one year before the games begin – when the city recorded an air quality index of 88. For the Chinese, eight is a lucky number.

“We all laughed when we heard the data,” said Du Shaozhong, deputy bureau chief of Beijing Environmental Protection Administration. “What a coincidence. We are all confident about accomplishing the air quality mission for the Olympics.”

But a different story was being told in the United States on August 8, when International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge told news broadcaster CNN that “if the air quality in Beijing is not sufficiently good, endurance games such as biking will probably have to be rescheduled.”

Following Rogge’s comments, the commissioner for Australia’s Olympic effort John Coates said his delegation would postpone its arrival in Beijing to delay exposure to polluted air for as long as possible. And New Zealand’s delegation chief Dave Currie said he was concerned about the transparency of information in Beijing, warning that “we do not know what pollutants are in the air.”

These statements were triggered by serious smog in Beijing in June, when air quality reached minimum safety levels for only 15 days -- the worst pollution record for one month in seven years. The city’s nitrogen dioxide density was 78 percent higher than the clean air standard considered acceptable by the World Health Organization (WHO). Moreover, concentrations of airborne particulates in Beijing were three times the level found in New York.

Pollution could lead to any of at least four, worst-case scenarios for the Beijing Olympics. For starters, important athletes could refuse to participate. In a second scenario, athletes might quit during the games or wind up in hospital emergency rooms. In addition, China’s image could be damaged if athletes in outdoor events are forced to wear face masks, since video footage and photos of the covered mouths would be shown over and again by the international media. Fourth, the world’s sports fans may protest if the games are rescheduled at the last minute.

Another concern is the widening gap between air quality standards set by the WHO and China.

Beijing relaxed its standards in 2002, raising the average density limit for ozone to 200 milligrams from 160 milligrams, and the nitrogen dioxide standard to 80 milligrams from 40 milligrams per cubic meter.

Meanwhile, the WHO has become increasingly strict. The agency released in February an updated “air quality index guide” that set the safe standard for airborne particulates at 20 milligrams, down from 70 milligrams. It also reduced the ozone standard to 100 from 120 milligrams per cubic meter, and cut the standard for nitrogen dioxide to 20 from 125 milligrams per cubic meter.

Controlling ozone and particulates

Beijing decision-makers are most concerned about airborne particulates and ozone, which are among the five, critical ingredients for determining air quality levels. The others -- carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide -- are considered well under control.

Particulates not only reduce visibility but also impair the respiratory tract and, thus, may hurt athletic performance. Ozone also irritates respiratory systems and affects performance.

Vehicle tailpipes, coal furnaces, dust and industrial smokestacks are four, key pollution sources that damage Beijing’s environment, according to Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau. Listed by category, tailpipe exhaust accounts for 40 percent of the city’s pollution, dust 30 percent, power generation 20 percent, and industries 10 percent.

Beijing’s determination to control air pollution led to a government decision to relocate state steel manufacturer Capital Steel Group -- the city’s biggest contributor of particulates.

The government will spend 50 billion yuan to relocate the plant to Tangshan, in China’s northern Hebei Province. With about 140,000 employees, Shougang’s move will affect one-sixth of the city’s manufacturing workers.

But the steel plant won’t be gone before the Olympics. Indeed, the relocation is slated for 2010. Meanwhile, particulate levels have reached up to 180 milligrams per cubic meter around the Shougang factory, accounting for up to 23 percent of Beijing’s pollution. The plant’s influence also changes as weather conditions shift.

On another front, the Beijing government soon plans to release and submit for approval from the State Council, China’s cabinet, a list of air quality “protection programs” for the Olympics. The programs, as Caijing learned from the State Environmental Protection Administration, would take aim at problems in the capital and surrounding area before, during and after the games.

In the first phase, before the games begin, coal burning would be banned from the downtown area, while coal burning citywide would be limited to less than 25 million tons before next July 24, when the Olympics Village opens. All coal furnaces would have to be equipped with sulfur, nitrogen, and dust removal equipment. Major pollution sources, such as power plants, metallurgical factories, chemical works and petroleum refineries, would either have to cut production volumes or relocate. Additionally, recycling services would be added at the city’s 1,000 gas stations.

More rigid measures would be applied in the second phase of the air quality programs, which would start 58 days before the opening ceremony. First, to reduce dust, all construction in the city would be suspended during the games. Second, in an attempt to control vehicle emissions, trucks would be prohibited downtown, the number of private motor vehicles on the road would be reduced by 30 percent, and public vehicles would be restricted to running every other day. Third, factories that produce steel, chemicals and construction materials would be fully or partially halted. The fourth measure aims to limit coal pollution by increasing the amount of power imported from outside Beijing and generating more electricity with natural gas.

Zhao, the deputy mayor, said the government’s goal is a 30 percent reduction in emissions from five, major coal burning power plants.

However, the clean-air plan is not worry-free. Some cite the potentially negative consequences of limiting the amount of electricity generated by coal, arguing that these power plants are vital to ensure the power supply in the capital city. Beijing locally supplies only 25 percent of its power, importing the rest from outside provinces. This past summer, the city reported a 200,000 kilowatt gap between local and imported power.

Opportunity for the future

Residents of the Chinese capital wonder whether the opportunity to host of the Olympic will improve Beijing’s air quality permanently. It is widely thought that controls implemented over the past nine years have cleaned the air substantially. The skies reached Level B for 241 days in 2006 – a huge improvement since 1998, when air quality reached that level for only 100 days.

The city is also getting greener. The State Forestry Administration said that, by the end of this year, tree coverage citywide will reach 43 percent. Trees and shrubs also adorn the prime real estate surrounding skyscrapers downtown and the Forbidden City.

Zhao also told Caijing that Beijing is organizing workshops on environment sustainability, and that additional economic and administrative measures will be adopted to support the clean-air effort as the need arises.

Meanwhile, Beijing is putting money where its mouth is. The city spent 10 billion yuan in 2005 and 25 billion yuan in 2006 on environmental controls, bringing the total investment over the past seven years to 120 billion yuan. This amount is included in the city’s 290 billion yuan investment for the Olympics.

Amid the traffic controls and emissions tests in August, Beijing’s top Communist Party official Liu Qi said the city should use the Olympics as an opportunity to improve air quality over the long-term. He wants promises for both the Olympics and the environment to be fulfilled. But it’s a tall order. Experts estimate that at least 20 years of efforts – and even more determination among decision-makers -- will be needed before the capital city achieves good environmental health.

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