OPINION: Blue Skies Are Hard To Find As The Games Loom

Despite promises of a ‘Green Olympics’ by local organisers, pollution is a pressing concern for Beijing. Less than two weeks before the curtain rises, officials are discussing more contingency measures, writes JIM YARDLEY

LESS than two weeks before the Olympics, Beijing’s skies are so murky and polluted that the authorities are considering emergency measures during the Games beyond the traffic restrictions and factory shutdowns that, so far, have failed to clear the air.

For the past week, Beijing has been a soupy cauldron of humid, grey skies. Local pollution ratings have exceeded the national standard for acceptable air since last Thursday, despite a temporary air pollution control plan that began on July 20.

Under that plan, officials have used odd-even licence plate restrictions — limiting motorists to driving on alternate days, depending on whether the last number on their licence plate is odd or even — to reduce daily traffic by two million vehicles, or more than half the city’s total. Production at some factories has also been curtailed in Beijing and outlying areas.

But on Monday, China’s official English-language newspaper, China Daily, ran a front-page story under a boldfaced headline: “Emergency green plan for Games”. The article warned that officials might force far more vehicles off city streets — possibly 90 per cent of the city’s total — and temporarily close more factories.

No timetable was announced, but a senior city engineer told China Daily that officials would inform the public as early as possible about the details of the plan. The Olympics’ opening ceremony is on Friday, Aug 8.

Pollution has been a pressing concern for the Games. Local organisers have promised to hold a Green Olympics, despite air that often ranks among the most polluted in the world. Some Olympic teams are providing optional breathing masks for their athletes to protect them from respiratory problems.

Before Monday, Beijing officials had taken a determinedly upbeat approach to the pollution situation. At various news conferences, Beijing officials said pollution levels in July had fallen 20 per cent compared with the same period a year ago. They blamed the problems on recent weeks of unusually heavy rains that left behind a humid summer haze. Even though emissions have fallen, pollution was still being trapped in the haze because of a lack of dispersing winds, they said.

“We are very confident about the effectiveness,” Du Shao-zhong, a deputy director of Beijing’s environmental bureau, said of the traffic and industrial restrictions during a news conference on Sunday at the new Olympic media centre. “We are going to ensure a good air quality during the Games.”

Statistics suggest that the city’s daily air pollution index has improved somewhat compared with 2007. Beijing measures four primary air pollutants through its “Blue Sky” air quality monitoring programme. A system of monitoring stations calculates a daily air quality rating on a scale of 1 to 500, with 500 being the worst. The accuracy of the system has been questioned, but Beijing officials have steadfastly defended it.

Under the system, any rating under 101 is considered acceptable. The recent run of bad days began last Thursday with a rating of 113. Friday brought a 109; Saturday a 118; and Sunday a 113.

Even so, these numbers are better than the same month last year, when the ratings reached as high as 151 in late July. But such statistical improvements hardly fulfil the expectations that this month’s pollution control plan would sweep away foul air and render Beijing a city of clear blue skies, at least for the Olympics.

When officials opened the Olympic Village over the weekend, visibility was sharply limited by clotted skies. At one news conference, a Chinese reporter asked if there were any recommendations to help Olympic visitors discern the difference between polluted skies and cloudy ones.

Zhu Tong, a professor at Peking University who is serving as an air quality adviser to the Beijing Olympics, said unfavourable weather conditions, especially a lack of wind, have prevented the usual patterns for dispersing foul air.

“Usually, stagnant air only stays for three or four days,” Zhu said. “But it has been here for more than a week, which means more pollution is accumulating.”

He said officials were discussing more contingency measures, though no decisions had yet been made.

“The air quality is worse than we expected,” he said, adding that officials were continuing to examine how to reduce emissions by making the traffic flow more efficient. He also expressed optimism that the current weather pattern would break.

“We believe that once this weather moves out, we have a low chance to see it again,” he said.

Another Chinese newspaper, Science and Technology Daily, reported on Monday that a broader emergency plan for Beijing and surrounding areas had been submitted for final review to the State Environmental Protection Administration and could be announced this week. — NYT

 

New Straits Times

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