As games approach, China struggles to clean its air and green its image

BEIJING -- The 1,500-meter race is the ultimate test of strength and speed. World-record-holder Steve Ovett had what it takes.

But in the 1984 Olympics' 1,500-meter final in smoggy Los Angeles, Ovett gasped to keep pace with fellow Briton and archrival Sebastian Coe. Running fourth as the bell signaled the final lap, Ovett doubled over with chest pains.

Coe won the gold, but asthma beat Ovett. The ozone over central Los Angeles peaked at more than 235 micrograms per cubic meter during the games, searing his lungs.

"Pollution was one of the major factors in my having exercise-induced asthma in Los Angeles," Ovett told the journal Nature, two decades after his final Olympic race. "There was a significant number of sufferers but not much was reported."

Times have changed. As Beijing prepares to host the XXIX Olympiad next month, the capital's filthy air is the subject of global scrutiny.

Flecks of dust and ash in Beijing's air surpassed 600 micrograms per cubic meter last December -- a record for the year and 12 times beyond the maximum recommended by the World Health Organization. During stretches without wind or rain, the gray bouillabaisse shrouds ancient temples and modern skyscrapers.

Wary of Beijing's pollution, British marathoner Paula Radcliffe said she might wear a respiratory mask before she competes. Ethiopia's Haile Gebreselassie will skip the marathon but run the 10,000-meter race. Dozens of other athletes will train in Japan and Korea until the Aug. 8 opening ceremonies.

But Beijing is determined -- some say defiant -- that its skies will be blue and its games green.

"We are definitely confident that the air quality will be sufficient for competition," said Yu Xiaoxuan, Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games' (BOCOG) deputy director for construction and the environment. "All days in August will meet our air quality standard."

Beijing isn't the first Olympic host to make such promises, but it is arguably the most important. Largely fueled by coal, China's red-hot economy exacts a growing price on the planet's water, soil and sky. The so-called Red Dragon now rivals the United States as a top economic power and emitter of greenhouse gases.

From satellites, China's airborne dust can be seen drifting toward North America -- the same course traveled by container ships of consumer goods.

But change is afoot. Since China first promised the world a "green" Olympics eight years ago, this dynamic land of communism and capitalism has set out to show it can green its gross domestic product and reduce its emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

"Like America in the '70s, China has reached and is turning the environmental corner," said James Connaughton, President Bush's top environmental adviser. "Now, the question is how far and how fast."


Pollution paradox

Like Los Angeles, Beijing can blame some of its air problems on geography.

Sand blows in from parched plains to the west, while an arc of mountains hems in humid air from the south.

But there is a large human element. Decades of unsustainable farming and overgrazing are turning grasslands and lake beds into dust. New high-rise blocks sprout like bamboo, soaking up ever more water and electricity. Automobiles are elbowing out bicycles.

More than a thousand additional cars take to the streets every day in this megacity of 15 million people.

"Beijingers are like Angelenos now with their love of cars," said Rob Watson, a New York-based sustainable development consultant who worked in China for a decade. "By 2009, unless you're moving underground by rail, you're not going to be able to go anywhere."

China's conspicuous consumption and pollution-related health problems are paradoxical, said Earth Policy Institute founder Lester Brown. More coal consumption means more energy here. More energy, more industry. More industry, more wealth. More wealth, more cars. More cars, more pollution. More pollution, more health problems.

"In most economies, as people get wealthier, they get healthier," Brown said. "In China, in many situations, as people get wealthier, they get sicker.

"At some point, this is going to be an explosive political issue," he warned.

Cancer became the top killer in China last year. A Ministry of Health survey cited air and water pollution, as well as food additives and pesticides, as the leading causes of China's cancer incidence, which rose 19 percent in cities and 23 percent in rural areas between 2005 and 2007.

In its analysis of the 2008 Olympics, the United Nations Environment Programme called air pollution Beijing's greatest public health threat. And the city's water, while in compliance with World Health Organization standards at its source, erodes in quality as it moves through an aging distribution network.

Olympic tourists will soon learn to boil tap water before drinking it.

"Beijing's old or nonexistent infrastructure, rapid development and geographical constraints mean the city still has considerable challenges to overcome," UNEP concluded. "Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the environmental projects developed in Beijing prompted or accelerated by the award of the Olympics represent a long-term positive legacy for the city."

But Olympic organizers also know well that what happens in August may color how the world views China for decades.

Green games, blue skies

The International Olympic Committee promises to monitor air pollution and weather daily to decide whether to postpone outdoor endurance events, such as the marathon, triathlon and cycling, which require at least an hour of continuous physical effort.

The IOC has never postponed an event because of dirty air -- not even in notoriously polluted Los Angeles and Mexico City, IOC Medical Commission Chairman Arne Ljungqvist noted in a recent conference call with reporters.

"We have been in polluted areas other times without conducting an analysis or having paid attention at all," explained Ljungqvist, who analyzed government air-quality data collected last August. "This is the first time that air pollution has become an issue, and we have taken this issue seriously."

Olympians with asthma may see their performance suffer, he conceded, but most athletes will not be impaired by pollution.

"We may not see many world records under unfavorable conditions," he added. "But that's not the purpose -- to set records -- but rather to compete."

To be sure, when networks broadcast the games, millions of international viewers will be seeing China for the first time. Beijing has spent more than $17 billion to improve its air quality since 2001, when the city won the bid to host the Olympics, according to state media.

The sprawling Olympic Green sports more than a half-million new trees, while the athletes' village and venues feature energy-efficient lights and other green-building technologies (see video).

The city has closed or moved almost 200 factories and power plants and is considering banning more than a million motorists from driving in August. A new auto emissions standard, meanwhile, should reduce breathable particulate matter by 330 tons this year, city officials say.

But an independent analysis of the city's air quality data casts doubt on Beijing's claims of progress.

Beijing reported that the number of "blue sky" days -- days when the city's 500-point Air Pollution Index measures below 100 -- increased to 246 last year, up from 100 in 1998. The index is based on 27 stations throughout the city that measure sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter levels.

Steven Andrews, a Maryland-based environmental consultant and former Princeton in Asia fellow, wrote in a recent study that Beijing traded measuring nitrogen oxide, the city's worst pollutant, for nitrogen dioxide in 2000. Five years later, the city dropped two stations near busy highways from its API calculations, he charged.

"What's clear at this point is that the games haven't been a catalyst for cleaner air," Andrews said in an interview. "There isn't a need for drastic changes, such as encouraging people to drive fewer days or moving factories."

"The key issue is a need for enforcement," added Andrews, who said he plans to publish his findings in a peer-reviewed journal.

BOCOG environmental director Yu denies that any air monitoring stations have been moved. Rather, he said, the city has increased its monitoring stations more than threefold to more accurately gauge pollution.

"Beijing is a megacity in a developing country," Yu said. "So as we prepare for the Olympic games, we must pay more attention to the environment."

Greener Dragon?

Whether Beijing is greenwashing is not really important, argues Jennifer Turner, who runs the Woodrow Wilson Center's China Environment Forum in Washington. Beijing's air quality should be much worse than it was a decade ago, she said, given the country's exponential growth in consumption of cars and coal.

"Beijing's air quality is about the same as it was about 10 years ago," Turner explained. "But if during that time coal use has doubled, and more than a thousand cars are going on the road every day, there's something right going on."

Top Chinese and U.S. government officials are careful to emphasize long-term environmental trends over short-term results. As major trade partners, the two countries share a common interest in a wealthier, healthier China, noted White House environmental adviser Connaughton.

"I have seen a significant shift of commitment at the highest levels of China's government for sustained environmental commitment," he explained. "First and foremost, it's driven by their desire to protect the health and welfare of their people."

Last year, China set a target of getting 15 percent of its electricity from wind, solar and other renewable sources by 2020. A national afforestation target calls for increasing China's carbon-swallowing tree cover from about 18 percent today to 23 percent in 2030.

China's current five-year plan calls for cutting energy consumption 20 percent per unit of gross domestic product by 2010 while reducing sulfur dioxide and other air pollutants by 10 percent.

China's leaders concede that ending five consecutive years of double-digit GDP growth may be necessary. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has called for more modest 8 percent GDP growth this year "on the basis of improving the economic structure, productivity, energy efficiency and environmental protection."

Hitting the ambitious environmental targets may also mean changing not only how China produces energy, but also how this nation of 1.3 billion people uses it in urban factories and high-rises. Sustainable development in the countryside is also essential, experts say.

About a quarter of China's population is projected to urbanize during the next two decades. The population shift is expected to put even greater pressure on China's natural resources and man-made infrastructure.

Clearly, the Olympics has stepped up the pressure on China to improve its air and water quality -- and even its approach to human rights. The Tibet-related protests along the torch relay route proved that the Olympics is not just sport but politics.

"The Olympics are more than a set of games. This is about China's national image and pride," explained Hanling Yang, a senior program manager with the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development, a nongovernmental organization with offices in Beijing and Portland, Ore.

Ping He, who runs the International Fund for China's Environment, which also has U.S. and China offices, considers the Olympics a window for China to improve its environment.

The green games and GDP goals mark a good start, he offered, but stamina matters most.

"The numbers show ambition," Ping said. "The trend is more important."

E&ETV takes an in-depth look at the "green" Olympics, Beijing's plans for sustainability

Beijing, China, host to this year's summer Olympics, has faced a tremendous amount of international pressure to improve its air quality since it was named host city. With all eyes on Beijing, has the city made the necessary improvements to address air quality issues? In this special report, E&E explores the measures being taken to "green" the Olympic venues and Beijing as a whole.

Click here to watch.

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