Blue skies in Beijing? Don't hold your breath.
On second thought, maybe it's a good idea, particularly for those taking part in an event where pollution may be hazardous to your health. As the Summer Games loom closer, it's unclear whether China's much-vaunted promise to supply clean air both to Olympic visitors and to the 15 million citizens of the often-hazy host city has been achieved.
How unclear? Under the government's own somewhat relaxed ambient-air standards, Beijing's air-pollution index registered 113 on Thursday, which is actually higher than the 1997 to 2000 averages Beijing presented in its Olympic bid seven years ago. In official Chinese terms, a rating this high is described as "unhealthy for sensitive groups" - a polite way of saying that it might be a good idea to skip the marathon and scale back on your heavy breathing.
To put the rating in starker terms, it describes an airborne concentration of fine particulates "over three times the World Health Organization guidelines," according to Steven Q. Andrews, a Washington-based environmental consultant and frequent critic of China's efforts to put a sunny spin on its war against pollution. In the run-up to the Olympics, the pollution in cleaned-up Beijing still exceeds a smoggy North American city like Los Angeles: In 2007, not a single day at any L.A. monitoring station recorded a level of particulates equal to what the Olympic city experienced on Thursday.
Beijing's air quality continues to be a problem of Olympian proportions - even though the Chinese capital has spent more than $20-billion over the last decade to reduce its legendary smog in time for the August 8 start of the 2008 Games. By many standards, the scale of the clean-up has been impressive: Grotesque smoke-belching factories have been shuttered or wholly relocated, and filthy coal-burning heaters have been switched to cleaner natural gas throughout the densely populated city of 15 million. Smelly diesel trucks and taxis have been ordered off the road, vehicle emission-control standards have been increased to European levels and a massive investment has been made in public transit - three new subway lines opened last weekend.
The all-encompassing improvements even extend to Beijing's innumerable building projects, where both the country's unparalleled economic boom and, ironically, the huge Olympic construction programme, have generated clouds of lung-choking dust. Government monitoring of the sites has become more rigorous, and Beijing's pollution wranglers have tried to get airborne particulate under control in such low-tech ways as watering dusty ground or planting extensive ground cover - the urban equivalent of the afforestation schemes in China's desert areas designed to suppress the sandstorms that frequently dash Beijing's blue-sky dreams. The only thing missing is a super-giant fan to blow away the toxic air that prevailing winds bring to Beijing from even dirtier industrial cities to the south.
"Air quality has improved from what it was," says University of British Columbia environmental researcher Hisham Zerriffi. "It's difficult to imagine they could have done any better. But my concern is that it's temporary. It's touch-and-go whether they will meet their targets for the Olympics, but the bigger issue is whether they can improve air quality in the longer term."
The precariousness of the improvements was highlighted last weekend when Beijing imposed last-minute restrictions on automobile traffic: From now through the end of the Paralympics in late September, half of the city's 3.3 million cars will be kept off the formerly congested streets each day. Plans are in place to restrict driving even further if pollution levels continue to be problematic. This is the kind of desperate measure reserved for desperate times, and it is an admission by the local authorities that their former sunny optimism is now clouding over - construction sites have also been shut down temporarily, and factories told to take an Olympic vacation.
Some observers of Beijing's clean-up attempts would go even further. "I'd say that there should be no private-car use during the Olympics," says Jennifer Turner, co-ordinator of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, who notes that almost 24,000 premature deaths in Beijing each year are related to air pollution. As much as Dr. Turner respects the efforts made by the Chinese authorities, she says that "Beijing isn't so much getting better as running on the spot" - because of the booming economy, dust-generating construction is up, the city's car traffic increases by a reported 1,000 vehicles a day, the auto industry is too central to the country's prosperity to be discouraged and, nation-wide, coal consumption has doubled since 2001.
Beijing is also a victim of its location - in the hot summer, the mountains surrounding the city on three sides have a tendency to trap and intensify pollutants.
"It's similar to the Los Angeles basin," says Milind Kandlikar, a professor of environmental policy at the University of British Columbia.
"This is a place that cooks gases to create ozone and a stable air mass without much dispersion."
And then there's the city's summer climate, which is hardly ideal for a high-level athletic competition. "Air quality is gradually getting better," says engineering professor Charles Jia of the University of Toronto, though "better" in this case still means borderline by wider health standards. "But the weather is an extremely important factor when it comes to whether pollution levels will be good or bad. A great deal depends on the temperature, the wind direction and the amount of precipitation. If you have a wind from the north, you could have blue skies, but if it's from the south, it's a different story."
When it comes to the weather, the all-powerful authorities in Beijing might finally be expected to throw in the towel. But no, they have one more trick up their sleeve: Using mortars, rocket launchers and aircraft, they intend to shoot silver iodide powder into clouds near the city, with the idea that it will serve as a surface for water droplets to form on - which will then fall as precipitation.
While the plan is mainly designed to clear the air in order to guarantee rain-free opening ceremonies, provoking storms will also cleanse Beijing of its airborne grime.
Or so they hope.
John Allemang is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.
Source: The Globe and Mail