Beijing To Drive One Million Cars Off the Road Next Month

Beijing will ban one million cars—a third of its autos—for a two-week test of its smog-control measures in August, a year before it hosts the summer Olympics. The most polluted June in seven years--due largely, experts have said, to automobile exhaust and farmers burning crops outside the city--underscored the challenge facing the city ahead of the Games. Already Beijing has banned coal-burning furnaces, relocated power plants outside of downtown and spent billions to move a large steel mill to a man-made island off the shore of northern China's Hebei Province. By June, Beijing had registered three million vehicles, up from 2.88 million last year and only 1.34 million five years ago, a rise that has helped make the country the world's second-largest vehicle market by sales after the U.S.

The 1,000 new cars that hit the streets every day are a sign not only of rising incomes but of the city's weak public transportation network. As Shai Oster points out in the Wall Street Journal cars here "are crossing the line from a luxury of the rich to a commuting necessity for the middle class." This isn't the first time Beijing has done this...The last time the Beijing government did this, during last year's African summit--by ordering government vehicles off the road and enlisting local car clubs to reduce driving--it only targeted a quarter of a million cars and for just two days.

Car population control is clearly not a sustainable option for improving traffic and cutting pollution, given the growing obsession with the car and the government's stake in the booming auto industry, But for the Olympics, Beijing has little choice. Cars have helped drive levels of nitrogen dioxide in the city over the World Health Organization's clean-air guidelines by at least 78%. By next year's "Green" Games, Beijing has promised to reduce concentrations of dangerous pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrous dioxide and ozone to within levels accepted by the WHO, and to keep concentrations of particulate matter, a component of smog, down to levels similar to major cities in developed countries.

This isn't just a matter of saving face. A recent report by the World Bank and China's State Environmental Protection Agency estimated that approximately 394,000 deaths occurred in 2003 from outdoor air pollution in China. The report said the approximate monetary cost of "excess deaths" from such air pollution was 394 billion yuan, or around $52 billion, assuming the value of a "statistical life" to be one million yuan. Unfortunately—and despite an apparent openness in state-run media regarding environmental problems—the report's biggest findings were cut under pressure from the Chinese.

Scientists from around China and the world have been enlisted to help reduce other sources of pollution from outside the city, and to study the impact of Beijing's plan to impose tougher fuel and automobile-emission standards next year.

See also coverage on Beijing's "Green" Olympics, the sticky parking situation in the city, the threat of cars in China, and the previous "No Car" Days.

Associated Press via IHT

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