Beijing Pollution Threatens Success of Summer Games

Visitors to this summer’s Beijing Olympics will get an immediate lesson in the environmental cost of China's break-neck economic development: the worst air pollution in the world, which kills an estimated 656,000 people every year.

Buildings seen through thick pollution in Beijing, China.
Greg Baker
Buildings seen through thick pollution in Beijing, China.

“There's simply no experience quite like it," recalled Don Wyatt, a China expert from Middlebury College, about deplaning at Beijing International Airport. "One's throat instantly constricts. One's eyes instantly water. Things improve very little once one exits the airport. The rest of it is all about adaptation, learning to cope.”

The more immediate concern for the ruling Chinese Communist party, though, is to avoid having to postpone or cancel some events—particularly the endurance sports, marathon and bicycling—for health reasons, as the International Olympic Committee has warned.

After promising the world’s first "Green Olympics"—and spending $12.2 billion on 20 key projects—this would be a public relations nightmare.

To head this off, China announced a series of emergency measures last week, including alternating (odd-even registrations) driving days and banning 300,000 heavy-polluting vehicles, including aging trucks working at night. But skeptics say it may be too little, too late to make a difference.

“It remains an open question whether these measures are going to be enough or not,” says Elizabeth Economy, of the Council on Foreign Relations.


She said she was not particularly encouraged because of endemic corruption as well as the incomplete shift the ruling Communist Party has made from strong-armed diktat to issuing market-based incentives to change behavior.

“They don’t have the political or economic incentives in place to make it worthwhile for business people or even officials to do the right thing,” Economy explained.

China’s decision last week to cut government fuel subsidies—which are expected to push up local prices 8 percent—should also help to curb driving.

But Beijing is trying to apply a tourniquet to emissions. Another plan calls for an industrial slowdown in five nearby provinces. But Economy says enforcement, while strict in the capital, will likely crumble the further away from one gets from Beijing.

This is especially true where local officials are typically major stakeholders in local companies that face cut-throat domestic competition, making them reluctant to shut down for two months during the Olympics and subsequent Para-Olympics.

The slowdown in neighboring provinces is meant to address the special geographic position of Beijing, which is surrounded by mountains on three sides that tends to trap pollution.

The capital is also regularly buffeted by intense dust storms that compound the permanent haze from non-stop construction, which is also being halted.

International experts applaud Chinese official’s prodigious efforts to relocate and retrofit polluting industries and to transform the city’s heating system from coal to natural gas.

Beijing, China
Beijing, China

But the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said in a report last year that these anti-pollution initiatives will benefit Beijing citizens years hence “provided that the impetus brought about by hosting the Olympics is continued…on a long-term basis.”

In the short-run much of China’s efforts have been undermined by its economic prosperity, long the Party’s foremost priority.

This includes an explosion of car ownership in the capital—1,200 new cars and trucks a day—which has more than doubled in the last five years to currently more than 3 million.

A four-day experiment taking a million cars off the road last August barely dented air pollution. But the real wake-up call came when IOC president Jacques Rogge said events that lasted longer than an hour might have to be postponed on bad air days.

Soon afterwards the world’s fastest marathoner, Haile Gebrselassie, withdrew for health reasons, and Belgian tennis star Justine Henin, before her sudden retirement, said she was concerned her asthma would act up.

“I think it is a real health concern—it’s a huge factor,” said a US Olympic Committee official who asked not to be identified. She added there are no withdrawls yet from the US team because the pollution was not considered life-threatening.

“There is no doubt that if they have to cancel or even postpone events it would be a serious loss of face, there would be enormous disappointment and embarrassment ….because this was supposed to be a Green Olympics,” said Economy.

A national monitoring system measures three key pollutants: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter (PM10), which is particularly harmful because it penetrates deep into lungs.

On a scale of 1 to 500, with 500 the worst, anything below 101 is considered a ‘Blue Sky’ day. Officials have trumpeted Beijing rising record of Blue Sky days, from 100 in 1998 but 246 days in 2007 but this achievement was marred by accusations of cherry-picking.

Other statistics show the situation worsening, especially those highlighting respiratory diseases as a leading cause of death, and the number one childhood disease.

The Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning in 2005 estimated there were 411,000 premature deaths, but a 2007 World Health Organization study said pollution killed 656,000. (This compares to 41, 200 premature deaths annually in the US.).

The World Bank has calculated pollution costs the country $100 billion a year—about 5.8 percent of its GDP—but Chinese officials have blocked publication of pollution-related deaths because of fears it might trigger unrest, the Financial Times has reported.

The concern highlights why air quality has become a “signature issue” for the government, says Christine Loh, founder of Civic Exchange, a Hong Kong-based public policy think tank, who urges the government to show the same “long-term strategy, central coordination and determination” it deployed to win the Games.

But to Middlebury’s Wyatt it is still unclear whether Chinese authorities are “receptive to having an educated public that is ecologically conscious” because it might challenge Party plans to continue growing at a ferocious rate.

Focused for the time being on the Olympics, Chinese meteorologists plan to fire rockets to disperse microscopic chemicals to seed clouds to release cleansing rains.