BEIJING — Officials laid out an ambitious series of measures on Monday that will freeze construction projects, slow down steel production and shutter quarries in and around the capital this summer in an attempt to clear the air for the Olympics. Even spray painting outdoors will be banned during the weeks before and after sporting events, which begin Aug. 8.
Although officials initially suggested the city’s wholesale transformation would be complete long before the opening ceremonies, the announcement nonetheless represents the most detailed possible plan for how Beijing might reach its long-standing pledge to stage “green Games” in one of the world’s most polluted cities. In earlier proclamations, officials had said that the city’s makeover would be competed by the end of 2007.
The measures announced on Monday include a two-month halt in construction, beginning July 20, and government directives will force coal-burning power plants to reduce their emissions by 30 percent throughout most of the summer. Officials said that 19 heavy-polluting enterprises, including steel mills, coke plants and refineries, would be either temporarily mothballed or forced to reduce production. Gas stations that do not meet environmental standards will closed, cement production will stop, and the use toxic solvents outdoors will be forbidden. If Beijing’s air remains unacceptably sullied in the days leading up the Games, officials said they would take “stringent steps” to curb polluting industries, although they declined to say what those measures might be. “We will do everything possible to honor the promise,” Du Shaozhong, deputy director of Beijing’s Environmental Protection Bureau, said during a news conference. “Just tell everybody they don’t have to worry.”
Some Olympic officials and athletes remain unpersuaded. Although the government has made notable strides in reducing the brown haze from coal-burning heaters and stoves, the unabated surge in car ownership has erased many of those gains. There are about 3.5 million vehicles choking Beijing’s roadways, with about 1,200 new cars joining the honking parade each week. Last August, in a four-day exercise that will most likely be repeated this summer, the authorities forced more than half the Beijing’s cars and trucks off the road. Officials said that they would present plans to restrict traffic at a later date.
In recent months, independent scientists who have sampled Beijing’s air say that levels of ozone and particulate matter from diesel engines remain five times higher than standards set by the World Health Organization. The head of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, said a particularly smoggy day could prompt officials to postpone outdoor endurance events. Some runners have said they will practice outside the city to avoid the worst air, although the outskirts may not provide much refuge: a good deal of Beijing’s foul air drifts in from distant cities and neighboring provinces, and sometimes from regions as far as Inner Mongolia, miles to the north.
Mr. Du, the environmental official, dismissed suggestions that Beijing had failed to make strides in reducing harmful pollution. He said that the number of Blue Sky days – a measure of whether the air is acceptably clean — has more than doubled since 1998, when there were just 100 such days. (Last year, he said, that number reached 246, adding that levels of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide have dropped significantly in recent years.
The authorities reached that goal by forcing local factories to upgrade pollution-control equipment and by compelling about 200 of the most hopelessly noxious to shut down for good. Even on a day when the horizon was notably hazy and the fumes from idling cars undeniably acrid, he urged the roomful of skeptical reporters to tell the public how much better Beijing’s air had become in recent years. “Please assure all the athletes,” he said.
But even if they find the city’s air cleaner than expected, visitors to the capital will likely be disappointed by the indoor environment. Earlier in the day, government officials announced that a proposed smoking ban, which is to take effect on May 1, had been modified in the face of opposition by business owners. Smoking will be restricted in hospitals, schools and sports stadiums, but it will be permitted in bars and restaurants.