Green to sepia: China and the 2008 Olympics

When China was awarded the Olympics in 2001, there was much celebrating in Beijing. Finally, this giant of a country, an obelisk to communism, was recognized by the international community, an affirmation the rulers had long sought. China has been pressing hard to modernize, eager to join the developed nations of the world &

the 2008 Olympics would be their opportunity to showcase their country and their progress.

Hence, when the announcement was made, it wasn't just the Chinese who were pleased. Environmentalists saw this as an opportunity for China to reevaluate its fast-tracked industrialization and the impact it was having on its environment. After all, in the summer of 2008 people from around the world would descend on Beijing for 17 days, and the assumption was that China would want to greet visitors with a spectacular Olympics, as well as clean air and water. China, many were convinced, would go green.

China has had, for sometime, a massive water crisis: rivers and lakes are degraded, and waste from factories and farms are dumped into surface water without penalties. It's also been reported that while the water in Beijing, at it's source, is potable, by the time it reaches individual taps it is contaminated. Clean water could be obtained from bottles and push comes to shove, brought directly to the international hotels and the Athlete's Village after special purification treatment.

But clean air, unlike water, is not something that can be manufactured and delivered to the world class athletes and Olympic visitors.

The 2008 Olympic slogan: "One World, One Dream." The dream of green, however, has not materialized. China continues to be one of the most polluted countries in the world and it will be interesting to watch as competitors from cycling to track and field arrive to participate in outdoor events where air quality is still reported to be well below acceptable standards.

European Satellite Agency reported recently that Beijing and surrounding environs have the world's highest levels of nitrogen dioxide, and that Beijing had only 11 "blue-sky" days in January of this year, despite its "Blue Sky" initiative.

There are more than 2.6 million cars on the roads of Beijing daily, with thousands more introduced monthly. According to a recent report in the New York Times, by Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley, "Chinese cities often seem wrapped in a toxic gray shroud. Only — percent of the country's 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by the European Union. Beijing is frantically searching for a magic formula, a meteorological deus ex machina, to clear its skies for the 2008 Olympics."

In a news story posted online by Wharton Networks, in 2006 China held its largest foot race called the Hong Kong Standard Chartered Marathon, with some 40,000 runners competing. The pollution index was dangerously high. the end of the race, a 53-year-old runner collapsed and died and 20 runners had to be hospitalized, many for respiratory ailments, some suffering from asthma attacks and hacking fits after crossing the finish line.

The major culprit of poor air quality is coal, on which China relies for two-thirds of its energy needs. "Last year," wrote Kahn and Yardley, "China burned the energy equivalent of 2.7 billion tons of coal," more than Europe, the U.S. and Japan combined, using plants equipped with inadequate pollution controls. Hence cities, such as Beijing, are layered with fine dust, soot and aerosol particles. Only Cairo has worse air quality than Beijing, according to the World Bank. Kahn and Yardley write that "In 2005, China became the leading source of sulfur dioxide pollution globally, as reported by the State Environmental Protection Administration, or SEPA."

In the same article, the reporters cite the following grim numbers: Premature deaths each year in China due to outdoor pollution: 350,000 (that number is expected to rise to over half a million by 2020); from indoor pollution: 300, 000; water pollution: 60,000.

The 2008 Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, will open on August 8, run through August 24, with opening and closing ceremonies to be held in the Beijing National Stadium. Events, such as soccer, sailing, the new 10 km marathon, and swimming events will be held in other cities, with equestrian competition slated for Hong Kong.

Close to 11,000 athletes will participate in 302 events in 28 sports. Some athletes, it's been reported, plan on arriving as late as possible for the games because of the poor air quality. China has promised to remove 60,000 taxis and buses from the roads during the games, and entire factories have been relocated to sites outside of Beijing, to include a major steel mill.

Will it be enough? We'll see. If the games last 17 days, then Beijing will need more than 11 days of blue skies in August of 2008.

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