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CHINA: Race to Improve Air Quality for 2008 Olympics

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING , Feb 9 2006 (IPS) - With just two years left for the 2008 Olympics, this city is struggling to live up to its pledge of hosting the ‘green games’ while also meeting the demands of its increasingly affluent residents and their consumerist ways.

Three years ago, the Chinese capital unveiled its master plan for hosting the 2008 Olympics with the city elders speaking of a commitment to hold the best games ever. They promised an event taking place in spectacular venues spread across a green city and accessible by a new public transport system.

They also pledged to clean up the notorious pollution smothering the city and meet the World Health Organisation’s average ambient air-quality standards. By 2008, the city would have blue skies, or be pollution free, for 80 percent of the year, or so the promises said.

But Beijing’s goal of becoming a pollution-free city is being undermined by rapid economic growth that is outstripping numerous measures put in place to improve the capital’s air quality.

In fact, any claim the city has to being environment-friendly has suffered one blow after the other.

After placing fourth in 2004’s ranking of China’s most livable cities, Beijing tumbled to number fifteen in 2005 according to an annual survey conducted by the Horizon Group, an independent, Beijing-based research company, that evaluated traffic conditions, environment and air quality among others criteria for quality of life.

In a report issued by the European Satellite Agency, in September last year, Beijing and its environs in northeast China were named as having the world’s highest levels of nitrogen dioxide – a key smog gas originating from power plants, heavy industry and vehicle emissions.

Levels of this gas, which can cause fatal lung damage, were found to have increased by some 50 percent in China’s air since 1996, and the trend is rising.

Early November, as Beijing’s air pollution index soared, the city’s Environmental Protection Agency issued a rare warning to residents to stay home. Suspended inhalable particles had reached a dangerous 300 micrograms per cu metre – meaning that outdoor activities had become hazardous to human health.

November marked the beginning of the coal-burning season, when pollution levels peak in the capital. As coal-powered heating plants were fired up for the winter, they released a toxic build-up that had settled in their inactive pipes.

But the trend of bad environmental news showed no signs of letting up in the following months either. In January, Beijing dwellers had only 11 blue-sky days – the least for the same period over the last six years, according to the city’s Environmental Protection Agency.

It was six years ago, that Beijing launched its campaign of ‘Defending the Blue Sky’. Alarmed that in 1998 the city saw only 100 days of blue sky, Beijing leaders deployed various strategies to improve the dire state of capital’s air quality.

Since 2000, they have exiled more than 1,000 heavy industrial and power-generation plants outside of the city proper. Unleaded fuel was banned and phased out. The capital’s reliance on dirty coal for energy has been reduced by the gradual introduction of natural gas for domestic and industrial use, as well as processed coal with reduced sulphur emissions.

Last year, some 4,000 old polluting buses and 30,000 cabs were removed from service and replaced with vehicles meeting new, tougher standards for pollution controls.

Yet, despite all efforts to reduce industrial pollution, the city’s air remains filthy. One culprit identified by the media and environmentalists is the large number of construction sites in Beijing.

In the rush to transform itself into a modern cosmopolitan city, Beijing has demolished large swaths of ancient dwellings and unleashed an unprecedented building boom. Each year, the city sees more than 100 million square metres of construction sites breaking ground.

In their desire to clean up the air before the 2008 Olympics, city leaders have declared that all construction should cease by the end of 2006, which has put an additional pressure on builders to work around the clock.

Experts estimate that dust stirred up by the relentless construction in the capital contributes some 20 to 30 percent of the suspended particulates in the air.

A bigger proportion, some forty percent, is caused by heavy traffic and the growing number of cars in the city.

Although new vehicle-emissions regulations expected to be fully implement by 2010 are on a par with European Union automotive standards, the reduction in exhausts per vehicle cannot match the exceptional rate of growth in the number of cars.

A 15-year-old government policy to promote the growth of China’s domestic car industry has spurred car ownership to staggering levels. China’s roads are expected to be clogged with 130 million vehicles in 2020, by which time the country will have surpassed the United States in total car ownership.

Nowhere is this more visible than in the national capital. The number of vehicles on Beijing roads soared by nearly one thousand a day in 2005 for a total of nearly 2.6 million, Liu Xiaoming of the Beijing government’s transportation committee told the press in January.

Moreover, some 40 percent of households in this city of 14 million people hope to buy a car in the coming five years, researchers from Beijing University’s China Centre for Economic Research announced recently.

The environmental consequences of such rapid growth have not been lost on the government. If the projected increases in car ownership in Beijing (and China) are realised in the coming years, the environmental impact will be felt not only on the clogged streets but also in global emissions of carbon dioxide.

But Beijing leaders are only too aware that thwarting growing aspirations of the consumerist middle-class residents who be to run the risk of social upheaval. In his policy speech in January, mayor Wang Qishan admitted that Beijing was finding it difficult to balance economic growth with environmental protection.

“There are serious problems in balancing the need for economic and social development on one hand, and issues of resource conservation and environmental protection on the other,” Wang said.

Rather than limit the numbers of cars purchased, the government is now seeking to improve the city’s public transport and provide tax incentives for consumers to purchase cars with small engines.

Beijing government’s Liu Xiaoming defended the capital’s model of development, saying the rise in car ownership and congested traffic were natural byproducts of rapid economic development.

“Major cities around the world have spent more than a decade or two trying to solve this problem,” he told the media in late January.

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