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Pollution Threatens To Overshadow Opening Ceremony

Shi Jiangtao in Beijing – SCMP – Updated on Aug 08, 2008

Pollution, one of the major concerns Beijing has had to contend with since it was awarded the Olympic Games seven years ago, threatens to overshadow tonight’s extravagant opening ceremony.
A shroud of smog is expected on opening day, today, after the air pollution index hit a 10-day high yesterday. That cast a cloud over Beijing’s hopes for a worry-free event and its much-touted ability to manipulate everything involved, including the weather.

Despite authorities’ massive last-minute cleanup efforts and promises of clear skies, the smog yesterday mixed with sweltering humidity and oppressive heat.

The air pollution index, which measures air quality from noon to noon, reached 96 – still considered “moderate” by national standards. But many of the 27 monitoring stations around the city recorded pollution figures close to or over 100 – in categories labelled “slightly polluted” or “unhealthy for sensitive groups”, which includes athletes.

“Unless there are marked changes in weather conditions, the pollution reading for Friday is expected to remain around the same level as today,” said Zhu Tong, a leading environmental expert at Peking University.

Du Shaozhong, deputy director of the capital’s environmental bureau, agreed that air quality today would not show much improvement given the “unfavourable weather conditions”.

The country’s top meteorologists have forecast cloudy skies and high humidity, along with a strong chance of showers, for this evening.

Data from the past three decades shows the probability of rainfall is 47 per cent in Beijing today and 41 per cent in the area around the National Stadium, or “Bird’s Nest”, site of the opening ceremony.

Games organisers and meteorological officials have talked about their weather-manipulation technology and determination to ensure a dry opening ceremony, but last night they refused to say if it would be used. Instead, they seemed to shift the emphasis onto the limits involved in trying to manipulate weather.

“Cloud-seeding to disperse rain clouds remains a global challenge, and we are still carrying out research on it following a few experiments in the past,” said Yu Xinwen, spokesman for the China Meteorological Administration. “Whether we use it will depend on the needs of the Olympics.”

Beijing’s pollution has worsened in the past four days, after the city basked in rare sunshine and blue skies on the first three days of August.

Yesterday’s pollution reading ranked fourth highest on a list of 86 major mainland cities – far worse than in many industrial hubs, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Beijing has promised all along to meet both national standards and the World Health Organisation’s 2005 air quality guidelines.

But a Greenpeace report said Beijing’s air quality still fell short of the much stricter WHO standards for healthy air, and was of concern to competing athletes, especially those in endurance sports such as the marathon.

In a desperate attempt to cut pollution, Beijing officials implemented a slew of measures in recent weeks such as pulling cars off the road, stopping construction and closing factories. But despite these all-out efforts, Mr Du admitted things had not gone well.

“Our monitoring shows that the accumulation of pollutants has slowed in the past week. Although the pollution figure is at a high level, the conditions are remarkable because of the up to 90 per cent relative humidity, and little rain and wind – which hinders the dispersal of pollutants,” he said.

“Our stringent pollution-control measures have shown results,” he insisted, adding that officials had no immediate plans to activate their contingency measures.

But the high pollution figures remained a cause for concern among environmentalists.

“Apart from the weather, the economy’s high growth rate and energy consumption also contribute to the high pollution level,” Professor Zhu said.

Authorities have announced additional traffic restrictions for today, which will see the city’s main streets – including those leading to the city centre, Olympic venues, the airport and the luxury hotels where foreign dignitaries stay – virtually cordoned off.

One thing might help the emissions from cars today: Beijing has announced a holiday for all public servants, and many businesses have closed to avoid traffic congestion and security concerns.

But the sweeping traffic bans have also been questioned by many residents, who say it has done little to ease traffic gridlock but has made their daily commute inconvenient.

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