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Clearing the Air in China

Author: Toni Johnson
August 5, 2008

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Beijing has long hoped the 2008 Olympic Games will shine a spotlight on China's progress as a burgeoning world power. In addition to building splashy new sports venues, authorities have taken various steps to beautify Beijing—from erecting walls to hide urban blight (NYT) to limiting the size of the family dog. But efforts to bring the city's notorious air pollution under control have proven a scramble. After promising a "green Olympics," officials temporarily moved or shut down factories (AP), revamped mass transit, and implemented measures to take half of its 3.3 million cars off the road (McClatchy). Yet in the days leading up to the August 8 opening ceremonies, prospects for a smog-free start to the game remained hazy (BBC). Health concerns persist among some athletes (NPR), and one author contends that "a sniff test" indicates that many factories are still in operation (Huffington Post), contributing to the air problem. A 2006 study notes that pollutant sources outside Beijing add significantly to the city's air problems (PDF), further complicating clean-up efforts.

The World Bank ranks Beijing thirteenth in the world (BBC) for pollution from the kinds of matter that can cause respiratory difficulty, so-called "coarse particulates." (Though Cairo and New Delhi top the list, more than half of the cities in the top fourteen are in China.) The city's levels for coarse particulates are double World Health Organization safety standards and are substantially higher than levels at any recent summer games. Still, some international monitors give China credit for its cleanup efforts. A report by the UN's environment program says China achieved many of the commitments (PDF) it made when it won its bid for the 2008 games. The environmental group Greenpeace has also praised many of China's efforts (PDF)—though it adds that "limited transparency and a lack of independently verified data" make it difficult to fully evaluate greening efforts.

While course particulates are well-documented health concern, little data exists for other air pollutants. Beijing monitors fine particulates and ozone (WashPost) but it does not make the data public, making measurements of progress and comparisons with other cities difficult (PDF). (China's official news agency said this will change next year when ozone levels are included in air quality reports.) Ozone can cause acute respiratory distress and reduced lung function within a few hours. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says people at greatest risk from ozone exposure are those that exercise outdoors.

As a precaution, many Olympic teams are spending their final training days outside China. U.S. officials are going so far as to arm their athletes with masks (WSJ). Some teams will also bring their own food (Globe and Mail) or carefully track the food their athletes eat during the games because of fears of food contamination or steroid-laden meat. Chinese officials assure the food will be safe (Xinhua), and one Olympics committee official said the U.S. plan to supply masks was "useless." Nonetheless, CFR senior fellows Elizabeth C. Economy and Adam Segal write in a new Foreign Affairs article that the burden remains on China: "Having promised a safe and green Olympics, Beijing must now deliver."

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