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July 11th, 2008:

Key Pollutant Levels Still High

Shi Jiangtao – Updated on Jul 11, 2008 – SCMP

The gap between China’s air quality standards and those recommended by the World Health Organisation has contributed to the never-ending dispute over Beijing’s much-touted improvements in cutting pollution, a mainland expert and official says.

Zhu Tong, an environmental scientist at Peking University, said the nation had tried its best to meet the pledge it made when it bid for the Games to reach the air quality levels of major cities in developed countries.

“Different countries vary in their air quality standards, and the WHO does not have a binding set of standards,” Professor Zhu said.

“China’s national standards are not as high as those in developed countries, which has led to disagreements, confusion or even misunderstandings.”

China’s standard national ambient air quality standards, which have been in effect since 1996, measure four airborne pollutants: carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter.

While Beijing has done relatively well in controlling the first three, so far it lags far behind in meeting the global standards for fine particulate matter and ground-level ozone concentrations – the two biggest areas of concern over health risks. Ozone is not even monitored by Beijing although the WHO recommended it be included when the Air Quality Guidelines were revised in 2005.

Beijing’s daily average ambient concentration of particulates measuring less than 10 microns (PM10) dropped from 0.156mg per cubic metre in the first six months last year to 0.145mg this year. While it met the national standard of 0.15mg, the WHO’s guideline is 0.05mg.

Noting that the readings for particulate matter were still high, Professor Zhu said it was mainly because some temporary measures, including a traffic ban, had still not been implemented.

Dip In Pollution But Smog Persists

Slow progress in battle to clean up dirty air

Dip in pollution but smog persists

Shi Jiangtao in Beijing – Updated on Jul 11, 2008 – SCMP

In the fourth in our series on preparations for the Games, Shi Jiangtao looks at the battle against pollution

Beijing has been frequented by rain in the past weeks, the most in 10 years.

Days of torrential rain have eased the decades-long drought and replenished reservoirs, but it did little to wash away the shroud of smog, casting uncertainty over the Olympic Games, which open in less than a month.

While Beijing, determined to host the best Games ever, has impressed the world and the International Olympic Committee with its spending and its ability to manipulate almost everything, there is at least one exception – the persistent pollution.

Officials have repeatedly pledged to meet World Health Organisation air quality standards in time for the Games, but the daily concentration of airborne particles from vehicle emissions, industrial pollution and dust from construction sites remains above internationally recognised safety standards.

Mainland officials are still confident they can solve the pollution problem in time for the event and deliver an environmentally friendly, or green, Olympics. They have also begun a last-ditch effort to clean up pollution: banning construction work, shutting down factories in and around the capital and imposing traffic restrictions affecting about two-thirds of the city’s 3.3 million cars.

The city has spent 148 billion yuan (HK$168.6 billion) on pollution control since 1998 and adopted several strict measures, from converting hundreds of thousands of coal-fuelled boilers to use clean energy, and shutting or relocating polluting industries to planting millions of trees and imposing stricter emissions standards for new cars this year.

To ease traffic gridlock linked to high concentrations of disease-causing fine particulates, authorities have cut fares on public transport and opened new subway lines to benefit more than 21 million commuter trips a day.

Neighbouring jurisdictions – including Hebei , Shanxi and Shandong provinces, Tianjin municipality and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region – have also offered their support to ensure good air quality during the Games.

“We have made tremendous efforts over the years to improve the environment for the Olympics and we have seen progress in tackling air pollution,” said Du Shaozhong , deputy director of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau. “In short, we are ready for the Games.”

Mr Du said air quality in the city had continued to improve in the first half of this year, with the lowest concentrations of four major pollutants registered in years.

While levels of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide dropped by more than 20 per cent between January and June, particulate matter – the biggest headache – decreased by only 7 per cent.

But officials’ claims of progress based on statistics have been widely questioned by the public, overseas media and experts, who are convinced the city’s air pollution problem has been played down.

US environmental consultant Steven Andrews is one expert who has accused Mr Du’s bureau of fudging smog figures for the sake of image.

The air remains a top concern for the IOC and the athletes who will compete, especially those in endurance events, such as the marathon.

World record-holder Haile Gebrselassie, of Ethiopia, dropped out of the marathon in Beijing because of fears for his health. Canadian and Australian athletics squads have decided to skip the opening ceremony for the same reason.

Yet Mr Du put on a brave front and insisted that figures compiled by his bureau were the only reliable source of the city’s air pollution data.

“The issue of air pollution has been overly publicised and exaggerated,” he said. “We don’t need any independent party to help us monitor our air quality during the event.

“I have met quite a few people who have come up with their own hand-held pollution detectors and attempted to dispute our findings. But such devices obviously failed to represent the whole picture. It is unimaginable to set up another air quality monitoring system as comprehensive and big as ours.”

He said Beijing had almost met its Olympic commitment, and its years of preparation would certainly be evaluated during the 17-day spectacle.

“I hope all the stringent measures can be fully implemented in time,” he said. “My only concern at the moment is extremely unfavourable weather during the event.”

The United Nations Environmental Programme, while recognising Beijing’s decade-long effort to clean up pollution, added in a report last year that it may take years to see significant progress in air quality.

Amid international pressure over the issue, mainland media were ordered last year to censor reports about the capital’s pollution problems ahead of the Games, and few mainland environmental experts and activists have dared discuss the subject.

Some outspoken mainland environmentalists said temporary bans on private cars, industrial production and construction work would not have a long-term impact on the city’s chronic pollution.

They also appealed to the government to continue the intensive pollution control effort after the Olympics.

Emissions Legislation Does Not Go Far Enough

Air pollution bill passes, but lawmakers are still unhappy

Emissions legislation does not go far enough, say critics

Cheung Chi-fai – Updated on Jul 11, 2008 – SCMP

Lawmakers yesterday endorsed cross-border emissions trading and gave legal backing to caps on power firms’ emissions of pollutants.

They demanded unanimously that officials set out a framework for handling the city’s “carbon footprint”, which was excluded from the measure passed yesterday because officials say they need more time.

The measure also spells out the way caps on emissions of three major air pollutants will be determined beyond 2010.

Cross-border emissions trading will give power firms leeway to meet emissions caps by means other than reducing the pollution their chimneys spew into the air.

A majority of lawmakers voted in favour of the Air Pollution Control (Amendment) Bill 2008.

However, the legislators were unhappy that it has not put Hong Kong’s efforts on a par with other countries in the fight against climate change.

“When is the government going to really take global warming seriously? Please stop telling us that the issues are being studied and instead give us a clear timetable and strategy,” said Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, the Civic Party leader.

Democrat Sin Chung-kai urged the government to table concrete initiatives in the next legislative term to keep Hong Kong ahead of other Chinese cities in curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

DAB legislator Choy So-yuk criticised the measures as inadequate and biased in favour of power producers. “It is just a little better than nothing,” she said.

She proposed an amendment to limit the validity of emissions-trading contracts to five years. While arguing her case, she appeared close to tears as she claimed an official, who she did not name, had made misleading comments about her proposal.

“There have been media reports quoting official sources saying the real motive of my proposal was for election purposes. This is complete nonsense and misleads the public,” she said.

Without a time limit, Ms Choy said, emissions trading would merely create a window for local power producers to emit excess pollutants indefinitely as long as they could buy sufficient quota from mainland counterparts to cover the extra pollution.

Fellow lawmakers rejected her proposal. They preferred a government proposal to limit power firms to buying quotas equal to a maximum of 15 per cent of their annual pollution caps. Environment minister Edward Yau Tang-wah said Ms Choy’s proposal would reduce power producers’ flexibility to trade quotas.

As for the city’s carbon footprint – the measure of the carbon emissions all economic and human activity generates – Mr Yau said the administration was serious about taking action, but reducing it would require a significant adjustment to power producers’ fuel mix.

The Legco meeting was interrupted when two Greenpeace protesters in the public gallery held up a banner labelling the environment minister an “accomplice to global warming”.

G8 Talks Offer Glimmer Of Hope For Climate Deal

Reuters in Toyako – Updated on Jul 11, 2008

If this year’s G8 summit achieved anything, it was to reinforce two truisms: the problems of the age, such as global warming, are extraordinarily complex and the Group of Eight alone cannot resolve them.

Viewed in that light, it was always unrealistic to expect the G8 to pull a rabbit out of the hat and miraculously settle the summit’s main issue – how to curb greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are warming the planet to dangerously high levels.

As such, it is a good bet that next year’s meeting will rehash the same arguments on climate change that dominated the three days of talks that ended on Wednesday on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

That is especially the case as the next G8 summit, in Italy, will be a year closer to the December 2009 UN conference in Copenhagen that, negotiators hope, will agree on a pact to replace the Kyoto Protocol that expires in 2012. Why show your hand before you have to?

But that does not mean this summit was a waste of time. The main job of the G8 is to send out strong political signals, not to sign deals. So Japan’s taxpayers will have to wait for Copenhagen to see whether the 60 billion yen (HK$4.36 billion) their government stumped up to stage the summit was well spent.

“An expression of strong political will from 16 leaders – this will surely be a strong force to push UN negotiations forward,” Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said.

True, the G8’s commitment to work towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent by 2050 fell short of what green activists wanted. But they were never going to be satisfied.

True, G8 leaders did not set numerical interim goals that would convince voters they might be serious about meeting targets decades hence when they will be out of office.

And true, eight other big polluters invited to the last day of the talks – adding up to the 16 to which Mr Fukuda referred – did not sign up for the aspirational 2050 goal.

But politics is the art of the possible, and analysts said getting US President George W. Bush to back the mid-century target marked a tangible success for the summit host.

“You can say it’s a problem, a challenge or a reality of the international political landscape that we have, that these talks have to sometimes work on the lowest common denominator. And the lowest common denominator in the G8 is the United States,” said Marthinus van Schalkwyk, South Africa’s environment minister.

With Washington having budged and with the G8 agreeing that it needs to set ambitious mid-term goals for emission cuts, the outline of a deal in Copenhagen is taking shape.

Rich countries would shoulder most of the burden of cutting carbon pollution, while developing countries would make less ambitious commitments and would get a lot of financial and technological aid from the west to help them meet their goals. Sketching the contours of a Copenhagen consensus is not to minimise the political obstacles that will have to be overcome.

Even in one-party states, leaders are loath to make promises that might imperil growth. “China’s central task now is to develop the economy and make life better for the people,” President Hu Jintao said. China relies on coal for more than 70 per cent of its energy.

Poorer countries have genuine concerns that they will take longer to escape poverty if they are forced to curb pollution.

“The imperative for our accelerated growth is even more urgent when we consider the disproportionate impact of climate change on us as a developing country,” Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said.

Trading off growth today for uncertain benefits tomorrow is hard enough for any one country. When more than 100 nations are involved, the task is next to impossible: witness the seven long years of haggling in the World Trade Organisation to try to agree to a new round of tariff cuts and market-opening measures.

And the G8 is not about to wither away, with Japan, the US and Germany opposed to revamping the group’s membership.

Two-Fingered Goodbye From Bush

Agence France-Presse, The Guardian – Updated on Jul 11, 2008

US President George Bush signed off with a defiant farewell over his refusal to accept global climate change targets at his last G8 summit.

As he prepared to fly out from the summit in Japan on Wednesday, he told his fellow leaders: “Goodbye from the world’s biggest polluter.”

Mr Bush made the private joke in the summit’s closing session, sources said yesterday. His remarks were taken as a two-fingered salute from the president from Texas who is wedded to the oil industry.

He had given some ground at the summit by saying he would “seriously consider” a 50 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2050.

But green groups had protested that the summit was a missed opportunity. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said the summit failed to reach a needed consensus.

“The challenge will be great and there is no great breakthrough at this particular meeting,” Mr Rudd said.

Some leaders who were not invited to the elite summit were disappointed at the outcome.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said the climate deal was “another step but not definitive”, while his Dutch counterpart Jan Peter Balkenende said the results “were not those that were expected”.