AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 30/2008

China's Pollution Problem Beijing Scrambles to Host 'Green Games'

Smog, dust particles, algae blooms: the high levels of pollution at Olympic venues has the sporting world worried. The Chinese authorities are working feverishly to address the problem -- closing factories, banning cars from the roads, and renewing promises of "green games." But will it be enough?

By in Beijing


Down in the courtyard there's a silver-colored building made of corrugated sheet metal that looks something like a missile control center. Inside, large screens hang on the wall with position lights and graphs showing current cloud formations throughout China. Double rows of scientists in white coats sit silently in front of computers and compile data.

A policeman stands gaurd amid the smog in Beijing's Tiananmen Square one month before the Olympic Games start.
REUTERS

A policeman stands gaurd amid the smog in Beijing's Tiananmen Square one month before the Olympic Games start.

Wang Chunlin, a man with a stubble haircut, is in a good mood. The engineer employed by the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau has great news: "We're going to have clean air. August and September are always the best time of the year anyway."

Wang smiles, aware of the importance of his forecasts. His country is in urgent need of favorable environmental prognoses.

The Olympic Games are scheduled to get underway in Beijing in just three weeks time. And the question of the weather and environmental conditions in the Chinese capital is probably one of the biggest issues preoccupying people around the world right now.

Beijing, with a population of 17 million, is one of the world's most polluted cities. On days when there is smog people on the street take to wearing filter masks. A recent measurement taken near the Olympic Stadium showed that the concentration of dust particles in the air there was five times higher than the limit recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). Many of the athletes who will be competing for medals in Beijing are uneasy about this. Those who will be taking part in endurance disciplines are particularly worried about health issues and reduced ability to realize their potential. Experts already feel certain that many track-and-field athletes will not be able to put in their best performances due to air pollution.

The hosts, on the other hand, continue to give their assurances that things aren't half as bad as they're being made out to be. The Chinese government promised the International Olympic Committee (IOC) it would organize "green games." Massive measures of a kind only possible in a totalitarian system (including plant closures and driving bans) are being taken to avoid the embarrassment of seeing cyclists or runners coughing and wheezing as they struggle to make it to the finish line.

Last Thursday was of the kind of day the Chinese government is hoping to have for the Olympics. A sunny blue sky over Beijing with hardly a cloud to be seen and the western mountains clearly visible in the distance. Tourists could be seen taking pictures of each other in front of the "Bird's Nest," the new national stadium. Absolutely superb weather in China's capital.

However, the truth of the matter is that Beijing is normally more like a giant sauna in August. The temperature goes up to around 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), the humidity is high, and a gray haze hangs in the air. Between August 8th and 24th last year there was not a single day when the air quality was in compliance with WHO guidelines.

When smog forms the Forbidden City disappears behind a wall of gray. Only vague outlines can be seen from the new futuristic television center on the 3rd Ring Road despite its proximity. The western mountains are just a distant memory.

The city's residents cough, their eyes burn, a sticky wet film forms on everything. Dust particles, nitrous oxide, and sulfur dioxide concentrations rise to dramatic levels. The authorities send out text messages to warn asthma sufferers to stay indoors and close the windows.

"My five-year-old son has had a chronic sore throat since he was two years old. He has to clear his throat all the time," says Beijing secretary Wang Hongmei. "That's because of the air pollution."

Part of this foul mixture comes out of the exhaust pipes of the more than three million cars that jam the streets of Beijing day in and day out. Although the city government has imposed European standards for exhaust emissions, so many new vehicles are registered every day that even the strictest rules can't help.

Bringing Beijing to a Halt

Another problem is the fact that numerous factories and power stations are located in residential areas. They're a curse from the past, a legacy Beijing owes to Mao Zedong, the founder of the modern Chinese state. Mao saw smokestacks and factory buildings side by side with residential housing and cultural centers as a socialist ideal.

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Smokestacks belonging to power stations even protrude into the sky close to the Olympic Park. On the outskirts of the city there are dozens of steel mills and chemicals plants busily contributing to China's economic growth. Under adverse wind conditions streets, office buildings and apartment blocks are shrouded in the foul-smelling gases they give off. When sand blows in from the Gobi Desert and mixes with the fine dust that is stirred up all year round at the countless construction sites in and around Beijing the air turns a brownish-yellow color and triggers fits of coughing in people exposed to it.

The government spent the equivalent of €10.7 billion ($16.8 billion) over the past several years in an effort to keep its "green games" pledge. Factories were relocated, subway lines built, outdated boilers replaced. In addition, special plans have been made for when the games actually begin. The idea is to bring half of the city to a grinding halt.

On Sunday numerous construction sites and gas stations were shut down. Factories have had to close or reduce their emissions by a third. For the next two months a special driving ban will be in place in Beijing with cars only allowed to be driven every other day. Around 300,000 vehicles that do not meet current exhaust emission standards cannot be driven at all. No burning of grass or straw will be allowed on the fields around Beijing.

Environmentalists have praised these measures. White smoke billows out of the chimney of a coal-fired power plant in Beijing's Chaoyang District. "We've installed new scrubbers," Deputy Director Yu reports proudly. "We've been able to reduce our sulfur dioxide emissions to 20 milligrams per cubic meter. Just as the government requires."

But will measures like this be enough? "Go to the botanical gardens more often," was the advice I got not long ago from a senior Environment Ministry official who asked to remain anonymous. "Everywhere else the dust particle concentrations are so high that I'm not allowed to disclose them."

The blue dots on the graphic display at the Beijing Air Pollution Index (API) makes it look like an aquarium in which bubbles are rising to the surface. On many days between March 2007 and June 2008 concentrations ranged between 100 and 200 API points. On others they reached the 500 mark, constituting a significant danger to public health.

Wang Chunlin, the man from Beijing's Environmental Protection Bureau is very self-confident. His office has its own set of definitions for clean and dirty air. For Wang the sky is blue when the API is at 100. When scientists in Hong Kong speak of "slight pollution" Beijing reports "excellent" air quality for the same measurements.

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© DER SPIEGEL 30/2008
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