If That Doesn't Clear the Air . . .

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 1, 2008

BEIJING, July 31 -- Eight days before the 2008 Summer Olympics kick off in Beijing, the city's air quality is still so unpredictable that officials were forced Thursday to announce emergency contingency plans.

In recent days, the Chinese capital has been blanketed in a haze, and vehicle emissions have been higher than those expected by experts. Olympic organizers fear the pollution could not only prove a nuisance to spectators but also hinder the performance of athletes if they inhale the pollutants deep into the lungs.

Chinese authorities had previously ordered many gunk-spewing factories to move out of town or shut down. On Thursday, the Ministry of Environmental Protection announced that officials would close 220 more factories, coal-fired power plants and steel plants in Beijing, as well as in nearby Tianjin city and surrounding Hebei province if air quality is forecast to be poor for any 48-hour period.

Beijing will also ban all forms of construction "if there is very unfavorable weather, and the air quality is forecast to not be up to standard for the next 48 hours," according to the ministry's Web site. Experts said they interpreted this to mean that the emergency plan would begin if Beijing's air pollution index, or API, was forecast to be 100 or more for two days in a row.

Officials describe an API over 100 as unhealthy for sensitive groups such as the young and the elderly.

On July 20, authorities began banning cars from the roads based on their license plate numbers -- vehicles bearing odd and even numbers were given permission to take to the roads on alternate days. But afterward, the city's API actually increased, from 55 that Sunday to 110 on Friday and 118 on Saturday.

Zhu Tong, an environmental sciences professor and the director of the Beijing Olympics Air Quality Research Group at Beijing University, said officials hadn't calculated that creating special highway lanes dedicated to Olympic travel would clog the other lanes.

"We expected that with the odd and even restrictions there would be no traffic jams, and therefore fewer pollutants emitted. But because of the special Olympic driving lane, there are still a few traffic jams, so the emissions are higher than our predictions," Zhu said.

Still, Zhu said that the measures imposed July 20 had already improved air quality and that the emergency measures announced Thursday were only a "just-in-case" plan.

"The hazy days we had last week were due to unfavorable weather conditions," Zhu said. "If there's no unfavorable weather, I think we can guarantee good air quality during the Games."

Under the new emergency measures announced Thursday, more cars would be taken off Beijing's roads with a ban on vehicles whose license plates had a last digit that matched the date, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Alternate-day driving would also be extended to Tianjin and parts of Hebei. There are more than 3.3 million cars in Beijing, and more than 1,000 are added to its streets every day.

Some greeted the contingency plans with a degree of cynicism.

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