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Air Quality Unfairly Singled Out By Global Media

Air quality unfairly singled out by global media, UN official says

Shi Jiangtao in Beijing – Updated on Aug 10, 2008 – SCMP

The UN’s environment chief questioned the global media’s “frenzied focus” on Beijing and defended the city’s green efforts for the Olympics, which failed to clear smoggy skies in time for the opening extravaganza.

But Achim Steiner, who heads the UN Environment Programme, admitted pollution remained “a huge challenge” for the capital and the whole country, and Games athletes had reason to be concerned.

His remarks came a day after he attended the opening ceremony, arguably the world’s most watched event, which had been held under smog, sweltering summer heat and oppressive humidity.

Thunder showers had been forecast during the opening show, but Xinhua said rain stoppers fired more than 1,100 rockets to seed clouds had helped ward off the showers and ensure a dry opening ceremony.

Athletes began their first day of competition in a mix of sultry, humid and hazy weather, including road cyclists, believed to be among the most sensitive group to air pollution.

Beijing’s air quality was “moderate” yesterday, with the reading for airborne particles, a key pollutant mainly from vehicle exhaust, at 79, down from 96 on Friday, Du Shaozhong , deputy director of Beijing’s environmental bureau, said.

The air cleared a little in the afternoon and rainstorms were forecast in the evening, which meteorologists believed would clean up the smoggy air.

Mr Steiner, also undersecretary general of the UN, said Beijing’s pollution problems had been singled out from a broad range of environmental issues Games organisers had addressed since it was awarded the event seven years ago.

“In some ways, [global media] are focusing on air quality at the expense of many of the environmental benefits that millions of Beijing residents will have after the Games,” he said.

“There are real and understandable concerns for the health of competitors, especially those in endurance and long-distance events … But the current frenzied focus is marked by considerable amnesia.”

He said Beijing was just one of a list of Olympic host cities that had been hit by air pollution, including Barcelona, Atlanta, Seoul and Athens, and had made commendable efforts to deliver on its commitments for the Games. “After all, air pollution was a major concern in Los Angeles 24 years ago,” he said, adding the US city had very unhealthy days for 94 per cent of the Games period according to US environmental standards.

But Mr Steiner said he could not deny China had pollution problems, the result of decades of neglect. “Pollution cost China US$100 billion a year, according to the World Bank, and I believe it is much more. There are 200,000 plus premature deaths as a result of air pollution,” he said.

As part of the green legacy of the Beijing Olympics, he said the city had shown the enormous possibility that the environment could be improved in just seven years. “For other cities in China, there is no reason why they should not accelerate their efforts to deal with their pollution,” he said.

But he said it was still too early to comment on the impact of a flurry of drastic contingency measures, including restrictions on traffic, building sites and factories.

Mr Steiner also announced that China’s superstar basketball player, Yao Ming , had been chosen as UNEP’s first environmental champion, responsible for promoting green ideas around the world.

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