If That Doesn't Clear the Air . . .

China, Struggling to Control Smog, Announces 'Just-in-Case' Plan

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 1, 2008; Page A01

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. 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.

"Being able to drive is an important part of ordinary people's quality of life. If they expand the restrictions, it will be even more inconvenient," said Xu Shuqiang, 34, a university law school lecturer.

"Government policy should be fair to everyone, not injure some groups in favor of others. I suspect all these measures are only for the Olympics, just to please the foreigners, since they will end on September 20," Xu added. "Beijing is always polluted. They should come up with a long-term solution."

An estimated 50,000 athletes and 22,000 journalists are expected in Beijing for the Games, which run from Aug. 8 through Aug. 24. Leaders want to showcase not only China's economic and athletic prowess but also its environmentally friendly policies. In the capital, it now has an expanded subway system, a new bus fleet powered with natural gas, and state-of-the-art Olympic venues that recycle rainwater.

By Wednesday, thanks to rain showers and a strong breeze, which helped disperse pollutants, the city's API had dropped to 44. By noon Thursday, it was 69, still within the acceptable limit of 100, which is considered moderate in Beijing.

But even moderate levels in Beijing are still above the World Health Organization guidelines for healthy air, experts said.

Part of the problem is that Beijing does not regularly monitor or publish data on the two most dangerous pollutants that affect respiratory health -- ozone and fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5.

Officials, meanwhile, are weighing other suggestions from experts, Zhu said. "Some say we should adjust the way we use the Olympic lane, others say we should spray the streets with water, still others say we should do more propaganda to get more people to take public transportation," he explained. "Some experts say maybe we should adjust the opening hours of gas stations."

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

© The Washington Post Company