Gray Wall Dims Hopes of 'Green' Games

Bikers wait at a light in Beijing last month as smog shrouds buildings a block away. Environmentalists and experts fear the city will be unfit to host next year's Olympics.
Bikers wait at a light in Beijing last month as smog shrouds buildings a block away. Environmentalists and experts fear the city will be unfit to host next year's Olympics. (By Shuji Kajiyama -- Associated Press)
By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 16, 2007

BEIJING -- In summer, a gray industrial haze coats this city of more than 15 million, descending over the Great Wall, sticking to humid hillsides and obscuring skyscrapers. Soaring temperatures and a lack of wind conspire with gunk-spewing traffic to foul the air.

The pollution is so bad many visitors are wondering how Olympic athletes will be affected and how this city can possibly be ready to host them in less than 10 months.

Beijing officials preparing for the Games point proudly to a state-of-the-art control room that measures pollutants at 27 monitoring stations around the city. They say they are adding subway lines and have moved many factories out of town. And in a four-day experiment in August that could be a model for action during the Games, officials eliminated more than a million cars from the city's streets by ordering motorists with odd- and even-numbered license plates to drive on alternate days.

But critics point to evidence of their own: Beijing does not regularly measure or evaluate some serious pollutants, including ozone and some types of fine particulate matter that can easily be inhaled deep into the lungs. Meanwhile, they have refused to publicly

release figures on the amount of pollutants at any given location, such as the Olympic Village or Tiananmen Square, preferring to stick with a citywide average.

China has promised a "green" Olympics, but its failure to divulge what is actually in the host city's air has alarmed athletes, surprised environmental experts and raised questions about officials' commitment to making needed changes.

Australian athletes have announced they will arrive in Beijing as late as possible because of concerns that the air quality might hinder their performance. Two weeks ago, two Ethiopian middle-distance running champions announced they would forgo some events because of the "disgusting weather and air pollution." New Zealand and American athletes say they will wear face masks if necessary. Even Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, warned that some endurance sports might be postponed if the pollution gets too bad.

Initially, Beijing planned a large-scale anti-pollution experiment in August in which authorities would shut down factories in and outside the city to better assess next summer's needs. There were also promises to work with surrounding provinces that contribute heavily to pollution in the capital, experts said.

But now there are indications such pledges will not be carried out. Liu Qi, head of China's Olympic organizing committee, told the Financial Times last month that factories would not be asked to close. And while Chinese news media have since reported that such a measure is being considered, skepticism remains.

"Some factory managers are refusing to close down for the Olympics, arguing that they are willing to slow, but not halt production," said Elizabeth C. Economy, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of a book on China's environment, "The River Runs Black."

State media reports said Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing, will tighten its monitoring of pollutants and begin to measure ozone. But Xu Junhua, deputy director of the information office of Hebei's environmental protection bureau, said state officials had not contacted Hebei about any such plan.

"We have no idea of the details, like where to put the monitoring equipment, how to monitor the extra pollutants, how to collect data and how to publish it," Xu said. "We are waiting for the guidance of the central government."

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company