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.
Associated Press via IHT