According to locals in Fumin county, in China's southwest Yunnan province, workers began arriving last August with heavy equipment to green a small mountainside. But instead of trees and soil they came armed with large paint guns and orders from above to turn the patch of rock a distinctly artificial green. This particular incident may have been an official attempt to improve the feng shui for the nearby forestry bureau office, or, more likely, simply a way of expediting the greening process. Whatever the reasons are, the symbolism is stark. These days it's as easy to be enchanted by news of the Middle Kingdom's green dreams as it is to be disappointed by news of setbacks and rampant greenwashing. And the great promise and inconvenient truth of China's environmental future is nowhere more evident than in its ambitious 2008 "Green" Olympic plans. For its Games, Beijing aims to reduce concentrations of dangerous pollutants to within WHO-accepted levels and keep concentrations of particulate matter down to developed-country standards. Surely, officials are as serious about greening the city for its huge coming-out party as they are about cleaning up its manners. But as anyone living in the capital now might have guessed, the city currently fails on all counts. And even if Beijing gets greener for 2008, what happens after the torch has passed?
During the summer months, pollution levels in the capital can spike to at least two to three times the level considered safe in a U.S. city. When it comes to fine particulates, which are dangerous at any level, Beijing exceeds U.S. EPA standards by three to four times. And while in 2006, Beijing proudly recorded 241 days of "blue skies," seven more than in 2005, the local environmental protection bureau says the chance that number will grow again soon is slim. From anecdotal experience, the chance that the number is accurate to begin with seems even slimmer. The thick gray and bronze haze that so often blankets the sky can make one forget what shade of blue the sky is supposed to be. Perhaps that forgetfulness is part of the twisted logic behind Beijing's penchant for literal greenwashing: absent nature, no one will notice if the grass has been painted for the Games, as is common, or if that dust-killing summer rain was actually induced by chemicals. At the very least, the athletes will be able to tell; last year, pollution was blamed when a number of runners in Hong Kong's marathon ended up in the hospital. Already, athletes are adopting new techniques to prepare themselves for Beijing.
More helpful are the relocations, or plans to relocate, more than 100 chemical, steel and pharmaceutical factories outside the city and the replacement of 300,000 polluting taxis and buses with cleaner vehicles (though a concerted effort would target surrounding regions too, which can account for up to 70% of some types of pollution over the city). Additionally, the city hopes to continue converting coal furnaces to natural gas furnaces. An entirely new era of public transportation has been forecast. Meanwhile, scientists are modeling pollution paths to better track sources of smog. And some of the Olympic venues, such as the gorgeous, bubble-clad "Water Cube" aquatics center (below), are being built to green standards. (It still remains to be seen if the Beijing Games will be fully carbon offset, like last year's Winter Olympics in Torino.)
But as green building guru Rob Watson pointed out to me recently, can a structure like the intricate National Stadium (above), which uses ten times the amount of steel that a normal stadium uses, much of it not going into actual structural use, be a "sustainable" stadium? "I think the designs are beautiful, but completely not sustainable," Watson says. And sure, no-car days will temporarily soothe the horrendous traffic, but are they really the answer to surging car ownership and poor traffic management? Will a $62 million water diversion scheme solve the north's drought past 2008? Is turning off factories for the weeks of the Olympics going to be the start to permanent restrictions of dirty smokestacks, as many are hoping, or just another Potemkin flourish?
More importantly, will the Olympics and the growing swirl of international attention that follows bring reform to the country's legal system, continue to whack out corruption, and overturn government policies that put job growth ahead of all other concerns? What role China's increasingly eco-conscious and crucial middle class will continue to play in greening China hinges on these questions, too.
For its part, the International Olympic Committee, which was recently dubbed the Champion of the Earth 2007 by the United Nations Environment Program, has been sanguine and even chipper about Beijing's green promises. They say they're confident that Beijing will be able to make the environmental improvements it promised when it won the Games—or at least make it look that way.
They have an interest, they have a genuine straightforward vested interest in presenting this city in the best possible way during the Olympics and that is, for me, more than enough guarantee [for a green Olympics].
So said Hein Verbruggen, chairman of the 2008 IOC commission (and a Champion of the Earth 2007), last summer. It may be good enough for him, but what will a genuine straightforward vested interest mean for the athletes, visitors and the city's millions of residents when the Olympic torch arrives?
And if Beijing's guarantee doesn't work, what repercussions might there be? According to Verbruggen:
Even if they did not attain their targets, what can you do? Let's be open about this, we can't say tomorrow, we go somewhere else.
Not exactly the answer you might expect from a "Champion of the Earth." But Hein's right, in a way: the IOC may be able to go elsewhere, but ultimately, we—you, me and China—can't just pick up and leave the planet like some unsuitable athletic venue. If Beijing fails to win the green medal in 2008, at least the loss of face might will be devastating enough to kickstart a real eco-revolution—one that requires more than green paint.