Sunday, January 13, 2008

Beijing’s Olympic Quest: Turn Smoggy Sky Blue

Beijing’s Stadium

BEIJING — Every day, monitoring stations across the city measure air pollution to determine if the skies above this national capital can officially be designated blue. It is not an act of whimsy: with Beijing preparing to play host to the 2008 Olympic Games, the official Blue Sky ratings are the city’s own measuring stick for how well it is cleaning up its polluted air.

Thursday did not bring good news. The gray, acrid skies rated an eye-reddening 421 on a scale of 500, with 500 being the worst. Friday rated 500. Both days far exceeded pollution levels deemed safe by the World Health Organization. In Beijing, officials warned residents to stay indoors until Saturday, but residents here are accustomed to breathing foul air. One man flew a kite in Tiananmen Square.

For Beijing officials, Thursday was especially depressing because the city was hoping to celebrate an environmental victory. In recent years, Beijing has steadily increased its Blue Sky days. The city needs one more, defined as scoring below 101, to reach its goal of 245 Blue Sky days this year. These improving ratings are how Beijing hopes to reassure the world that Olympic athletes will not be gasping for breath next August.

“We’re definitely hoping for the best,” said Jon Kolb, a member of the Canadian Olympic Committee, “but preparing for the worst.”

For the world’s Olympians, Beijing’s air is a performance issue. The concern is that respiratory problems could impede athletic performance and prevent records from being broken. For the city’s estimated 12 million residents, pollution is an inescapable health and quality-of-life issue. Skepticism about the validity of the Blue Sky ratings is common. Moreover, the concern is whether the city can clean itself up long after the Games are over.

Beijing has long ranked as one of the world’s most polluted cities. To win the Games, Beijing promised a “Green Olympics” and undertook environmental initiatives now considered models for the rest of the country. But greening Beijing has not meant slowing it down. Officials also have encouraged an astonishing urbanization boom that has made environmental gains seem modest, if not illusory.

Beijing is like an athlete trying to get into shape by walking on a treadmill yet eating double cheeseburgers at the same time. Polluting factories have been moved or closed. But auto emissions are rising as the city adds up to 1,200 new cars and trucks every day. Dirty, coal-burning furnaces have been replaced, lowering the city’s sulfur dioxide emissions. But fine-particle pollution has been exacerbated by a staggering citywide construction binge that shows no signs of letting up.

China’s unsolved riddle is how to reconcile fast economic growth with environmental protection. But Beijing’s Olympic deadline means the city needs an immediate answer. The ruling Communist Party envisions the Games as a public relations showcase and is leaving no detail untended. Scientists are cross-breeding chrysanthemums to ensure that flowers bloom in August.

Now Beijing is also going to try to manipulate air quality. For months, scientists have treated the city like a laboratory, testing wind patterns and atmospheric structure, while pinpointing local and regional pollution sources. Olympics contingency plans have been approved for Beijing and surrounding provinces. Details are not public, but officials have discussed shutting down factories and restricting traffic during the Games.

“We are determined to ensure that the air conditions meet the necessary standards in August 2008,” Liu Qi, president of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games, told the International Olympic Committee’s executive board this month.

Beijing residents overwhelmingly support the Games and take for granted that officials will do what is necessary to ensure clean air. Last August, the city removed a million cars from roads during a four-day test intended to gauge pollution and traffic. But people also know that any emergency measures have a limited shelf life.

“Yes, I heard about it,” said an engineer at one factory that may temporarily be shut down. He refused to identify himself because he was criticizing government policy. “It is like you invite some guests to your home, and hide all your children underneath the bed to make the house look nicer. If all the polluting factories are shut down for the Olympics, there will be a major pollution outbreak afterward when all the factories restart, right?”

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