Olympics: Is The Air In Beijing Safe?

BBC Beijing Air Pollution Images

With the Olympics starting today in China, everyone is anxiously watching the weather. Air pollution in Beijing is severe because of the many factories, coal plants and cars, but weather patterns make the situation even worse. Also, humidity can reduce visibility in a way that may seem unnatural, although it is not. Air pollution is a serious issue, causing long-term respiratory damage and severe allergies, but with good winds and perhaps some rain, the change could be rapid from terrible to lovely. It is one of those rare moments when some "rain on the parade" would actually be a good thing.

Making things worse, as Beijing treehugger Alex has shown in a number of carefully argued posts here and here, China's government has been accused of covering up how bad the air really is. Also, they offer no data about ozone, and have recently lowered its standard for pollutants like sulphur dioxide.

(Images from BBC)

Beijing Air Pollution Graph

Now you can actually see for yourself how things are going. The Wall Street Journal has a Beijing Air Quality Widget that promises to be more interesting than the medal count. It is based on data from China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. Here is a comparison of nitrogen dioxide particles:

Beijing Air Pollution NO2

Achim Steiner, undersecretary general of the United Nations and executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, which is assisting the Beijing Organizing Committee on environmental issues, argues that China's green efforts deserve some praise. I couldn't agree more. But the fact that the Olympics are being staged in a developing country, "with all the social, economic, health and environmental challenges that this entails" does not mean we should ignore the troubles. Steiner optimistically lists some of the good news:

For example, some 200 polluting factories have been closed, switched to new kinds of cleaner production or moved out of the city over the past seven years. Moreover, as a result of a $17 billion investment, more than 90 percent of the city's wastewater is now treated, more than 50 percent of the city is forested, and natural gas accounts for more than 60 percent of energy generation, up from roughly 45 percent in 2000.

Meanwhile, eight new railway lines, covering 200 kilometers and with a daily capacity of close to 4 million people, have become operational this year, alongside 60 km of bus lines. New vehicle emission standards meet the most stringent equivalent European standards, and are higher than in the United States.

In addition, 50,000 old taxis and 10,000 buses have been replaced, and 4,000 new buses are powered by natural gas — now the largest fleet of its kind in the world. In recent days, the authorities have also asked businesses to stagger the workday before, during and after the Games to reduce traffic volumes, alongside a raft of other traffic-cutting measures.

Olympic president Jacques Rogge believes pollution-cutting measures for the games will leave a lasting legacy in China’s fight against environmental meltdown. That may very well be true, but it is not a statement that offers any guarantee to athletes that the air they breathe is safe. Meanwhile, we can all contribute to making sure that "lasting legacy" happens a little sooner by reducing our consumption of unnecessary stuff: as China's factories make more and more of the world's consumer goods, their air pollution is our problem as well.

Written by Martin Frid at greenz.jp

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