BEIJING: Beijing and co-host Olympic city Hong Kong were on Monday blanketed in smog just 11 days before the Games, raising the stakes for organisers who were planning more emergency measures to clear the air.
Despite years of efforts to rid the Chinese capital of its notorious pollution and a raft of recent attempts at quick fixes, a typically thick haze cut visibility across Beijing to a few hundred metres (yards).
With some athletes already training in Beijing and elsewhere in China, and others due to arrive in the coming days including the US athletics team, the persistent pollution was jeopardising China’s promise of a “Green Games”.
Activist group Greenpeace released a report saying Beijing’s air quality was still well short of international guidelines – and that particulates in the air were twice above levels considered safe.
The state-run China Daily newspaper said the government may ban 90 percent of private cars and close more factories in a last-ditch bid to clear the skies before the Games start on August 8.
Last week, Beijing ordered more than a million cars from the roads and closed dozens of polluting factories, apparently with little impact.
The China Daily, citing an official with the city’s environmental bureau among others, said contingency measures such as the more extreme car ban could be implemented two days before the Games.
“We will implement an emergency plan 48 hours in advance (of the Games) if the air quality deteriorates,” Li Xin, a senior engineer with the bureau, was quoted as saying.
Nevertheless, the Beijing Olympics organising committee said it was still confident athletes would have little to worry about in regards to pollution during the Games.
“With the measures we have taken, we are fully confident that we can ensure clean air for the Games,” committee spokesman Sun Weide told AFP.
“I think it will take some time yet for these measures to show results but, because of the measures we have taken, we are fully confident.”
The pollution woes were not confined to just Beijing, reflecting the long-standing problems across China as the environment has taken a back seat to economic development over the past 30 years.
In the southern city of Hong Kong, which will host the equestrian events, the air quality on Monday appeared to be nearly as bad as in Beijing – and horses preparing for the Games were forced to train in the heavy smog.
The city’s air pollution level was classified as high, although it had not yet crossed the critical 100 mark, the point at which people with respiratory or heart problems are urged to stay at home.
A spokesman for the Equestrian Company, which is responsible for hosting the Olympic equestrian events, said a range of high-tech measures had been employed to protect the horses.
“We have kept our horses in a high-ceilinged, six-star stable,” the spokesman told AFP.
In its report, Greenpeace said levels of particulates, one of the major measures of pollution, were still twice as high in Beijing as recommended by the World Health Organisation.
Jacques Rogge, the head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), warned last year that poor air quality during the Games could result in the suspension of endurance races such as long-distance cycling and the marathon.
However, there has been no specific pollution levels given that would trigger the suspension of an event, and Greenpeace called on the IOC to issue minimum environmental standards for future Olympics.
Alongside pollution, security has become one of the highest-profile Olympic concerns for China.
The government has warned that alleged terrorists from China’s Muslim-populated northwest Xinjiang region were planning attacks on the Olympics.
But the state-run Xinhua news agency denied claims by a separatist group claiming to represent people in Xinjiang that it was behind deadly bus bombings in Shanghai and the southwestern city of Kunming.
Channel News Asia