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Analysis: Olympics and Beijing pollution

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Siobhan Devine
Washington (UPI) Oct 18, 2007
The obstacles Beijing faces in meeting environmental expectations by the 2008 Olympic Games are clear; what remains hazy is how the International Olympic Committee will determine if Beijing's efforts are insufficient, and what the organization's response would be in that event.

The IOC is looking at "all scenarios" if pollution is too intense, including moving or delaying events. A senior U.S. Olympic Committee official says Beijing's pollution levels are above World Health Organization standards.

"We cannot tell you what's going to happen in one year's time," said Emmanuelle Moreau, IOC media director, adding any such conversation would be hypothetical.

But Beijing's environmental troubles are real and persistent. They are also closely linked to the area's industrial landscape: coal-fueled power plants, smoke stacks and construction sites, and automobile exhaust. From these sources come many of the pollutants whose levels Beijing pledged in its Olympic Action Plan to reduce to the WHO's Air Quality Guidelines.

"What's tough is that Beijing actually did do what they said they were going to do (to prepare for a green Olympics); what got ahead of them is that the growth of the economy has just boomed beyond the government's expectations," said Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

"Coal use doubled in seven years instead of (the expected) twenty," she said. "That wasn't in their original calculations."

Yet even with the added challenge of rapid economic progress, Beijing can point to some environmental accomplishments.

In August, China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported that the city had already spent $240 million in research and development for "relevant technologies and facilities" to ensure a green Olympics. According to the article, 14 electric buses as well as 1,300 buses using compressed gas are now in operation in Beijing, pushing the city closer to its 2008 goal of having 80 percent of buses and 70 percent of taxis fueled by clean energy. Beijing has also attained the highest level of wastewater treatment in China (70 percent), according to Turner.

The city has been working to limit automobile exhaust as well. Xinhua reported that the four-day traffic ban in September -- a trial run of the system proposed for the Games -- decreased pollutants by 5,815.2 tons.

Despite a record 241 Blue Sky days in 2006, however, Beijing's accomplishments are less apparent than the smog that continues to typify the city.

According to a senior U.S. Olympic Committee official who asked not to be named, Beijing's levels of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and particulate matter (PM10), remain "above the WHO Air Quality Guidelines for those pollutants." This estimation is based on the official's own measurements, taken most recently in September 2007.

By August 2008, particularly if the government undertakes last-minute measures such as the proposed closing of all construction sites six months before the Games, "the air will probably end up being somewhat cleaner," Turner said. "But most people that just hit the town won't notice. There are going to be a lot of complaints," including from athletes.

None of this comes as news for the IOC.

"We know there will be challenges," Moreau said. "We're preparing for all scenarios."

In the event that pollution is considered too severe, the IOC has proposed postponing one or more of the Olympic events.

"Should we need to look at postponing or delaying events, we would do so. We will have to wait until the eve of the competitions (to decide this) sometimes. For example, if there's not enough wind, too much wind, the sailing competitions have been postponed in the past," Moreau said.

But she offered little clarity on how the IOC would determine if there was too much pollution.

"We have experts and we'll have experts on the ground and people will come and tell us if we should consider moving some events or not," Moreau said.

It was also unclear how long the IOC expects an event might need to be delayed before pollution levels became acceptable.

"We don't know that," Moreau said. "We cannot say. We'll have to handle it on a case-by-case basis."

Some observers suggest that the IOC might be considering more significant measures, such as moving events out of Beijing.

"What could happen is that (the IOC) will make a ruling, probably in the spring, and my guess is that they may move some of the events to Dalian, or one of the other cleaner cities on the coast," Turner said.

Olympic events are already planned for "co-host" cities such as Qingdao, Hong Kong, Tianjin, Shanghai, Shenyang and Qinhuangdao.

According to the USOC official, moving the endurance-based events from Beijing is being "seriously considered" by the IOC. Moreau refuted this assertion, however, stating the IOC is only considering "delaying or postponing events, not moving events from one location to another."

The potential for event delays is "not new to the Olympic Games," she said. "It happens at every Olympic Games; conditions are monitored across the board."

It also would not be the first time an Olympic host city failed to meet environmental standards. A 2004 Greenpeace report called "How Green the Games?" said the Athens 2004 organizing committee proclaimed in 2001 that "'Athens 2004 would like to be the first ever Olympiad using 100 percent Green Energy.'" Yet "far from achieving this goal," continued the report, "renewable energy will account for virtually none of the energy produced and distributed at the Games."


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