Olympics 2008, Beijing - raising the bar

Beijing is implementing strict measures to improve air quality, a commitment it took on as host of the 2008 Olympic Games. But a boom in automobile numbers could put paid to its plans. Delhi faces the same challenge with the Commonwealth Games slated for 2010, but its progress lacks Beijing's frenetic pace. Anumita Roychowdhury tests the air in the two cities

 
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Olympics 2008, Beijing - raising the bar

-- With the Olympic Games breathing down Beijing's neck, the city is racing against the clock to ensure it meets one of the commitments it made when it won the bid for the games in 2001 blue skies.

As one alights on the Jingshun highway that connects the airport to Beijing, a question comes inevitably to mind will Nini, the flying swallow chosen as one of the five mascots for the 2008 games, prosper in a city gridlocked by incessant waves of traffic--and the smoke it spews?

Clearing the haze that hangs over the city takes on a specific significance in the context of the Olympics. If athletes have to perform to potential, especially in extreme endurance events like the marathon, they need clean air (see box Greater risk). The International Olympic Committee (ioc) has already said air pollution may force some events--like the marathon--to be rescheduled if air quality is not conducive.ioc's bid evaluation commission was particularly concerned about this when it awarded Beijing the games--a programme with tight deadlines and targets was developed by the Beijing municipal government. The question is whether the authorities will be able to meet them. At the moment, it seems they still have a mountain to climb.

unep has reviewed projects implemented by Beijing. "While it cannot be denied that Beijing has made, and continues to make, strenuous efforts to improve air quality, air pollution is still the largest environmental and public health issue facing the city," it says. How big this challenge is can be gauged from a 2007 study by the World Bank, which found that the economic cost of air pollution in China is 3.8 per cent of its gdp. It is said that the Chinese government persuaded the bank to revise this estimate of the death toll from air pollution fearing social unrest.

blue sky days
Beijing has set targets for clean air days and is meeting them. But there are concerns over whether they are good enough
About 27 monitoring stations across the city track progress. The environment protection bureau monitors pollution in Beijing. Days that meet national standards for routine pollutants are declared blue sky days (see chart Beijing air). When Beijing had launched the 'Blue Sky' programme in 1998, it recorded only 100 such days in the year. Since 2001, it has set annual targets to increase blue sky days. The Beijing environment bureau says the number of blue sky days has increased steadily since 2000 177 in 2000, 224 in 2003, 241 in 2006 and 245 days in 2007. The target for 2008 is 256 days.

Beijing air
Annual mean levels show clean-up has mixed results
Down to Earth
Source UNEP Beijing 2008 Olympic games - an environmental review

Beijing is surrounded by mountains on three sides, which prevents pollutants from dispersing fast. Dust and emissions from smoke stacks and exhaust pipes remain in the air for a longer time. Seeing the city from Wanghe bridge or any other vantage points is like a game of hide-and-seek--one moment the city is wrapped in a haze, the next it appears bright and dazzling if a spell of rain happens along.

Despite the odds there has been a noticeable change in air quality, however. Though monitored data are not easily available, what is available is suggestive. Levels of so2 from power plants and industrial units and co, largely from automobiles, are falling sharply, whereas those of nox and tiny suspended particles are responding slowly (see box Sky blue).

What makes Beijing's task difficult is the foul air from surrounding provinces. He Kebin, professor, Department of Environmental Science and Engineering, Tsinghua University, explains "We have found that about 34 per cent of pm2.5 and 35-60 per cent of ozone during high-ozone episodes at the Olympic stadium can be attributed to sources outside Beijing." Hebei, Shandong and Shanxi provinces, Tianjin municipality and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region are in Beijing's airshed.

The government of coal-rich Shanxi has ordered that all desulphurization projects at coal-fired power plants be through by July 2008. Similar moves will be taken in Shandong, one of the highest so2 emitters in the region.

Critics have questioned the national standards, which are lax compared to who 's revised health-based standards. The annual standard for pm10 in Beijing is 100 g/cu m compared to new who guideline of 20 g/cu m.

But the government says it will be unfair to demand meeting these new standards, since they kicked in in 2006, long after Beijing made its commitments after winning the Olympics bid in 2001.

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