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Study: Beijing’s air worse than at past Olympics

TINI TRAN, AP – Jun 20, 2009

Beijing’s notoriously dirty air was cleaner during last summer’s Olympic games, but pollution levels were still much worse than at recent Olympics, despite a massive Chinese cleanup campaign, a new report said.

Athletes in Beijing faced pollution levels that were up to 3.5 times higher than those in recent Olympic cities like Athens, Atlanta and Sydney, said the study published Friday in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The pollution often exceeded what the World Health Organization considers safe.

The joint American-Chinese study — the first major one published on air pollution during the Olympics — also found that the weather, and not the Chinese government’s strict controls imposed in the run-up to the games, played the largest role in clearing the air.

The government’s plans to control air pollution for the event gave international researchers a unique opportunity to observe a large-scale experiment. Scientists from Oregon State University and Peking University looked at Beijing’s worst air pollutant — tiny dust particles known as particulate matter — over an eight-week period before, during and after the games.
China poured some $20 billion into “greening” the city after it won the bid in 2001, including doubling the number of subway lines, retrofitting factories with cleaner technology and building urban parks.

Government officials also imposed drastic cleanup measures just before the games in mid-July, including pulling half the city’s 3.3 million vehicles off the roads, halting most construction and shutting down dozens of factories.

The study — funded by the National Science Foundation in the U.S. and the National Science Foundation in China — found that the level of particulate pollution in Beijing was twice as bad as in Athens, Greece; three times as bad as in Atlanta, Georgia; and 3.5 times as bad as in Sydney, Australia.

Researchers found that particulate air pollution did drop by about one-third during the two-week Olympic period. But coarser particulate matter, PM 10, exceeded levels the WHO considers safe about 81 percent of the time, while the smaller particulate pollution PM 2.5, which can cause more serious health consequences, exceeded WHO guidelines 100 percent of the time.

“It was a giant experiment and a noble effort. But in the end, the extra added measures didn’t help reduce PM concentration as much as had been expected,” said Staci Simonich, an associate professor of chemistry and toxicology at Oregon State University who worked on the study.

There has been no evidence so far of any health problems linked to the short-term exposure of athletes or spectators during the Olympics, researchers noted.

Further investigation suggested that weather conditions, such as rainfall and strong winds from the north and northwest, played a much larger factor in clearing the air than the pollution curbs.

Meteorological conditions accounted for 40 percent of the variation in concentrations of coarser particulate matter, while pollution control measures accounted for only 16 percent, the study said.

The findings also showed that the weather ushered some air pollution into Beijing from industrial regions south of the capital that had less severe pollution curbs, including Hebei, Shandong, and Shanxi. Those results indicated the difficulties in trying to control pollution at a local level when air masses tend to move regionally.

The findings don’t invalidate the government’s efforts, said Zhu Tong, professor at Peking University’s College of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, and a co-researcher on the project.

“We learned a lot about how air pollution forms in a mega-city like Beijing, and how much pollution comes from which sources,” Zhu said.

Scientists also noted that their pollution measurements were about 30 percent higher than official figures by the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, though they said that reflected a difference in methodology.

Pollution expert Fang Ming, now retired from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said the findings don’t break new ground in terms of understanding how air pollution works.

“Having said that, it is useful to know the effectiveness of the huge ‘green Olympic’ effort to clean up the air in Beijing,” he said in an e-mailed response.

Overall, the Olympic pollution control efforts were worthwhile because “it demonstrated to the Chinese government that they need to pay more attention to the environment and it is good for the country. It also says that this is doable and the people have to be a part of the effort,” he said.

Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

I Thought It Got Easier To Breathe Back There In August!

James Fallows, The Atlantic – 07 Jan 2009 12:34 pm

As attentive readers may recall, the air in Beijing through the six months before the Olympic games was almost unbelievably horrible. Lest we forget: this was the view out my window in mid-June, which was not that different from how it had been day upon day through the spring and early summer.

But even as I was wheezing my way around town and truly getting depressed by no view of sun and sky (and being told by a doctor that I should stop smoking, when I’d never started), I was reporting in the Atlantic on plans to get things cleaned up by the time of the Olympics. The first two days of the Games looked pretty bleak — but then a line of thunderstorms moved through, and the air looked far better, and the environmental threat to the Games was averted.

Since then, the air in Beijing has seemed better — not all of the time, God knows, but more than before. How much of the improvement is due to factories being shut down because of the recession? (They must have been running 40 hours a day in the spring, given how bad things were then.) How much because of typically strong late-fall winds blowing in from the northwest? How much an actual long-term change? I don’t know.

But, courtesy of a tip from an engineer at NASA, here is new evidence that all the anti-pollution steps taken because of the Olympics really did make a difference in air-quality measures in August — and, it seems, some of the time since then.

The NASA map below will make more sense if you read the full report, here. Highlight version: the deep red west of Shanghai and north of Hong Kong (where Shenzhen and Dongguan are), plus through the central coal-and-factory belt in places like Shanxi province, is a bad sign. The light green around Beijing is relatively good! (The red zone on the coast just east of Beijing is the city of Tianjin.)


As the NASA report says of Beijing’s special Olympic anti-pollution rules:

During the two months when restrictions were in place, the levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) — a noxious gas resulting from fossil fuel combustion (primarily in cars, trucks, and power plants) — plunged nearly 50 percent. Likewise, levels of carbon monoxide (CO) fell about 20 percent.

Why does this matter? Because it shows that corrective steps can improve even the most hopeless-seeming environmental disasters. It’s worth trying to do something, rather than just hunkering down in bed and trying to take very, very shallow breaths — my strategy in the months from April to July.

In other words, Yes We Can.

Smog Chokes Beijing Despite Traffic Caps

Shi Jiangtao in Beijing, SCMP – Updated on Dec 09, 2008

Beijing saw some of its worst air pollution in the past six months yesterday, with its skyline engulfed in a blanket of smog.

This followed a brief respite during the Olympic Games, when prolonged traffic bans were put in place to clear the air.

The air pollution index, which measures air quality from noon to noon, reached 169, considered “slightly polluted” by national standards. Statistics from the Beijing municipal environmental protection bureau showed 27 out of 28 monitoring stations across the capital recorded figures designated as “slightly polluted” or “polluted”.

It was the third highest pollution level recorded since the Beijing Olympics, and came just days after the authorities declared Beijing had reached a self-imposed target number of clear-sky days for this year, thanks to the capital’s all-out effort to cut pollution ahead of the Games.

The capital cleared its smog-plagued air just in time for the Olympics with a series of temporary measures, such as pulling half the city’s 3.3 million cars off the road, halting construction and closing factories.

But with success comes higher public expectations for good air quality, prompting questions over the government’s ability to stamp out pollution, analysts said.

Choking smog had returned to the city of 17 million soon after strict anti-pollution regulations were lifted at the end of the Paralympics in September.

Under pressure, city authorities adopted a watered-down version of the Olympic traffic rules, banning private cars from roads on one weekday every week.

But the new restrictions have not worked.

The air pollution index reached 176 on October 18 and hit a six-month high of 186 on November 12.

Zhu Tong , an environmental expert at Peking University, said the existing restrictions did little to reduce emissions of airborne particles and sulfur dioxide from tens of thousands of coal-fired boilers, the main source of pollution in winter.

“Beijing still has a long way to go to convert coal-fuelled boilers and use clean energy,” Professor Zhu said.

He said stagnant weather conditions, meaning little wind or rainfall, had also worked against anti-pollution efforts.

Environmentalists and local residents have long cast doubts over the lasting environmental impact of the Olympics and the authorities’ promise that clear skies would remain after the Games.

Last week, Beijing said it had reached its target number of 256 “blue-sky days” this year, compared with 100 clear-sky days in 1998.

The central government has spent more than 150 billion yuan (HK$169 billion) in the past decade to clean up pollution in the capital.

Beijing To Reinstate Car Ban

Associated Press | 11 October 2008

Beijing will ban half of its 3.4 million cars from the roads during periods of very heavy pollution, state media reported yesterday. The city would temporarily reinstate measures introduced during the Olympic Games and ban cars on alternate days – depending on whether their number plates were odd or even – if pollution rose to extreme levels, the reports said. Work would also be suspended at construction sites and high-polluting factories. The restrictions will be imposed only if the air pollution index reaches 300, a threshold far above the city’s normal air quality level.

Beijing Goes (Reluctantly) Off-Road

China Journal –Juliet Ye – October 10, 2008, 7:14 am

Beijing’s private car restrictions are set to go into effect tomorrow, in an effort to bring back the days of clean air and more peaceful street’s the bustling city enjoyed during the Olympics. Naturally, many of the city’s road warriors aren’t happy about it.

Under this new restriction, which covers the heavily metropolitan area surrounded by Beijing’s Fifth Ring road, private cars with licensed plate numbers ending with a 1 or 6 can’t be on the road on Mondays. Those with 2 or 7 as the last digit are banned on Tuesday, 3 or 8 on Wednesday, 4 or 9 one Thursday and 5 or 0 on Friday. On weekends, all cars are allowed on roads.

The restrictions follow bans earlier this month on the number of government and corporate vehicles, a popular measure among Beijingers. But the restrictions on private cars are “unfair,” say many drivers in polls and online. An unscientific online survey on the Web site of the People’s Daily, the state-run newspaper, 68% out of 400,000 voters said that “it’s pointless to ban private cars.”

Web users packed online forums and listed reasons to “say no” to restrictions on private cars, and major web portals are hosting forums for people upset with the new regulations.

Netizen “endless99″ made a comparison between the subway maps in Beijing and several other cities, including Hong Kong and London. The person concluded, “The ban can only work out the traffic problems temporarily. Mature metropolitans such as Hong Kong and Tokyo all have well-served urban public transport system.” (The post in Chinese.)

One Web user wrote a blog post, titled “We Are Extremely Upset About the New Restrictions,” that the restrictions discriminate against those in the suburbs.

“How about those out of the Fifth Ring circle? We all paid the same amount of tax. It’s really unfair,” the user said, adding, “who is going to pay for my taxi?” (The post in Chinese.)

Others are unhappy with the lack of proper administrative procedure in getting the restrictions out. In an online poll on, 93% out of 6,000 people participating said “the restrictions on private cars should have been deliberated by the National People’s Congress before it went out.”

Beijing Smog Takes Shine Off ‘Golden Week’

Al Guo – SCMP – Updated on Oct 04, 2008

The National Day “golden week” holiday ushered in the predicted post-Olympic deterioration in air quality, with the capital suffering four consecutive days of “light air pollution” up to yesterday.

Smog, the hallmark of bad air quality, has hovered above Beijing since Tuesday, the second day of the holiday, and there is little hope of the pollution clearing any time soon because many of the official measures put in place to combat air pollution ended with the Paralympics.

The Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau said the Air Pollution Index stood at 106 on Tuesday, 104 on Wednesday and 126 on Thursday before dropping back to 108 yesterday. Any number higher than 100 is considered light pollution and can cause breathing problems.

By comparison, the index during the August-September Olympic and Paralympic period was below 50 on 10 of the 17 days of the Olympics and between 50 and 100 on the others.

For the 12 days of the Paralympics last month, the Air Pollution Index was below 50 on two days and between 50 and 100 on the others.

Air quality during the Olympics was aided by a series of government orders that shut down work at construction sites, took about half of the vehicles off the street and stopped production at polluting factories in and around Beijing.

But these measures ended with the conclusion of the Olympics, clearing the way for a return to smoggy skies.

Liang Xiaoyan, general manager of Friends of Nature, one of China’s best-known environmental-protection groups, was not surprised by the smog’s return.

“We all knew what we would get after those temporary measures were dead,” Ms Liang said.

She said she doubted authorities would now place environmental concerns ahead of other priorities, such as economic development.

“Do you want to encourage the development of the vehicle industry for a better economy, or do you want to curb the industry for a better environment? Without addressing such fundamental questions, there is no way environmental protection will top the government’s agenda.”

But there are signs of change. The city announced that from next Saturday every car would have to stay off the road one day a week until April to help ease congestion and reduce emissions.

Ms Liang said that even though her organisation was expecting bigger policy changes, it was willing to push ahead with even small moves that could help improve air quality.

She said Friends of Nature was trying to identify five main streets in the capital best and worst suited for cycling.

The study will be submitted to Beijing lawmakers this month in the hope of encouraging more bicycle-friendly policies.

‘Yellow-Label’ Cars Face Ban in Beijing

‘Yellow-label’ cars face ban from city in green drive

Zhuang Pinghui – SCMP – Updated on Oct 03, 2008

Beijing will phase out polluting vehicles known as “yellow-label” cars over the next year in a bid to improve the capital’s notoriously poor air quality.

Beijing issues yellow labels to cars whose emission levels fail to meet Euro I standards and green labels to those that do. The city has around 357,000 yellow-label vehicles; most are heavy trucks. Most domestic vehicles manufactured before 1996 or imported ones manufactured before 1998 are in the yellow category.

Xinhua reported that municipal authorities ordered all yellow-label government vehicles off the road from Monday and those involved in ancillary services, such as refuse transport, replaced within a year.

From January 1, all yellow-label vehicles, except those involved in food supplies and refuse transport, will be banned within the Fifth Ring Road. The ban will extend to the Sixth Ring Road, close to the boundary with Hebei province, on October 1 next year.

Xinhua said yellow-label vehicles accounted for only 10 per cent of the total in Beijing but were responsible for more than half of total vehicle emissions.

Traffic control measures, including daylight bans on yellow-label cars, were implemented for the Olympics and the Paralympics to ensure improved air quality.

The report cited a Tsinghua University survey as saying during the Olympic period pollutants from vehicles had declined by 30 to 40 per cent.

It quoted Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau official Feng Yuqiao as saying that nighttime air pollution levels were 15 to 20 per cent higher than in the day mainly because of the yellow-label vehicles coming into the city in the evening.

The ban on the polluting vehicles is part of a series of post-Olympics car restrictions that take effect this month in the hope of sustaining smooth traffic and good air quality after the Games.

Under the new traffic restrictions from October 11, 30 per cent of government vehicles will be garaged and the remainder of government vehicles and private cars will take turns on the roads on weekdays depending on their number plates.

The ban will apply from 6am to 9pm for private cars and around the clock for government and corporate vehicles. It is expected to cut Beijing’s average traffic flow by 6.5 per cent and speed up traffic within the Fifth Ring Road by 8 per cent.

Beijing Set For New Measures On Vehicle Use

Agence France-Presse in Beijing – Updated on Sep 29, 2008

Beijing will implement new traffic control measures aimed at clearing the capital’s smoggy skies and road congestion.

However, the measures will not be as tough as the rules implemented for the Olympics.

From Wednesday, 30 per cent of government vehicles would be taken off the roads, the municipal government announced yesterday on its website.

From October 11, the remaining government vehicles and all private cars would be banned from the city’s roads for one day each week, depending on their number plates.

The measures were intended to “reduce the impact of vehicle emissions on air quality and maintain basic transport order”, the government said.

The stricter Olympic restrictions, which expired on September 20, limited private motorists to driving on alternate days, removing more than a million of the city’s roughly 3.3 million vehicles each day. Other measures included shutting factories and halting construction activity.

The measures led to unusually blue skies. Authorities said atmospheric data showed Beijing enjoyed its best air quality in a decade. Since then, the usual traffic gridlock – and the smog – has returned.

Beijing’s air is among the most polluted in the world, and the problem is getting worse, with about 1,000 new private cars bought each day by its increasingly affluent residents.

The apparent success of the steps for the Olympics led to calls for them to be made permanent. Instead, the new measures will be implemented on a trial basis until April.

The authorities are also encouraging employers to shift their workdays to begin and end later to ease rush-hour congestion.

Parking fees may also rise.

Keeping Up With China’s Olympic Shine – Part II

Keeping Up With China’s Olympic Shine – Part II
Shoppers, intent on bargains, bear some responsibility for Asia’s pollution

Alexandra Harney – YaleGlobal – 24 September 2008

China has become known as factory to the world – as manufacturers invested in factories to take advantage of a labor force that accepts low wages and a government with minimal environmental standards and even less enforcement. Shoppers like low prices while the companies enjoy immense profits. China, indeed the entire world, pays a heavy price for manufacturing firms gathering in a place with such lax enforcement: Annual costs of pollution exceed $100 billion, refugees must leave damaged villages and farms, and toxic air and water spill far beyond China’s borders, explain author Alexandra Harney in the second article of this series that addresses China’s post-Olympics goals. Some multinational firms maintain high standards, but many others are secretive about suppliers and press for ever-lower prices and protections. Harney concludes that companies and consumers around the globe, along with China, must take responsibility for protecting the environment and take some serious and immediate steps to stop regarding “ever-cheaper products as a fundamental human right.” – YaleGlobal

HONG KONG: Beijing may have delivered its best air quality in a decade for the Olympic Games last month, but many Chinese in other parts of the country continued to live under a canopy of haze, breathing air that prompted American athletes to arrive wearing face masks.

Before critics in the West point fingers at China for soiling itself, they should consider their own role in contributing to the problem. Western consumers and companies enjoy the benefits of China’s polluting factories every day, and must bear more of the responsibility for helping these plants clean up.

The products the West buys from China are cheap in part because they do not include the full costs of environmentally-safe production. To keep costs down and enhance its competitive advantage, China has chosen to selectively enforce its environmental laws.

While Western companies generally follow the law at their wholly-owned facilities, many take advantage of China’s lax enforcement by pressing suppliers there to continually lower their prices. Companies provide few, if any, incentives to plant managers to behave responsibly. The West’s appetite for the $30 DVD player and the $3 T-shirt helps keep Chinese factories spewing toxic emissions into the air, pouring industrial waste into the waterways and damaging the health of employees.

China is paying a high price for its success as the world’s manufacturer. The costs of China’s outdoor air and water pollution now amount to $100 billion a year, according to the World Bank. Air pollution contributes to perhaps 750,000 deaths every year. Some 150 million Chinese farmers may eventually have to leave their land because of pollution and become “environmental refugees,” according to the country’s top environmental official. In 2005, there were almost 1,000 protests about environmental pollution every week in China.

Multinational companies play a direct role in exacerbating these problems, though the scale of their contribution is difficult to determine because most keep the identities of their thousands of suppliers a secret. The handful that do publicly disclose their suppliers, including Nike and Timberland, identify the factories by their English names, complicating the process of tracking them down in China.

But occasionally, this veil of secrecy is drawn back, and the connection between our shopping habits and China’s pollution becomes clear. In 2006, Chinese authorities fined a Hong Kong-owned textile manufacturer that counted Target, JCPenney and Land’s End among its customers, for dumping 22,000 tons of contaminated water into the Mao Zhou River.

Factory managers, who must work and live in a cloud of smog and next to black rivers, know that their neglect of environmental laws comes at a price. In the case of Fountain Set, the Hong Kong-owned textile maker, officials said the factory had created fake records to conceal its illicit effluent. But few managers think much beyond the next order. They ignore the larger, longer-term consequences of their behavior.

That’s because most Chinese factories face little pressure from government officials to clean up their act. They answer to their customers, including multinationals, who expect low prices and high quality and rarely bother to check whether their suppliers are known polluters. One sourcing executive at a large American computer brand complained to me that on her visits to factories in China, the air was almost unbearable. It never occurred to her that her suppliers might have something to do with the choking air. As a senior official at China’s health ministry told me, foreign companies “brought dangerous work and pollution and left with the profits.”

We are just starting to get a whiff of the deleterious effects of the West’s pursuit of ever-cheaper goods. Scientists at NASA and other organizations have tracked the movement of pollution from China to the West Coast of the United States. Both Japan and South Korea suffer from acid rain as a result of China’s coal-fired power plants.

Most of the time, though, shoppers in the West select their bargains in happy ignorance of the consequences. More than a decade after activists targeted Nike for buying from sweatshops, most companies tell us nothing about the environmental impact of their international sourcing. And why should they bother? None of us seem to care.

If we’re concerned about the health of our planet and our children, we need to start caring. As consumers, we should insist that retailers tell us whether or not their foreign suppliers even attempt to follow the environmental laws in the countries where they operate and what they are doing to encourage factories to reduce emissions.

This wouldn’t be hard for multinationals to do. Most large retailers already inspect their foreign suppliers for violations of labor laws; a progressive few already evaluate suppliers’ environmental compliance. We might even ask companies to declare, through labels, at the checkout counter or online, the environmental impact of the goods they sell. With transparency comes greater responsibility.

As they step up inspections, multinationals can draw on a growing body of information about Chinese factories’ environmental records. China’s state-controlled media report with increasing frequency on pollution. The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Chinese non-governmental organization, has created an online database of polluting companies in China, which contains more than 27,000 incidents of companies violating environmental rules.

Consumers and companies in the West should be prepared to spend more on goods from China as factories clean up their act, though better environmental policies do not always cost more money. Suppliers that lower their energy consumption, for example, will be more competitive. As commodity and fuel prices soar, the incentive to use material more efficiently will be greater than ever.

To be sure, multinationals are only part of the picture. China causes plenty of environmental damage without the West’s help. Many of China’s dirty factories supply the local market. The world’s most polluted city, Linfen in Shanxi province, is in the heart of China’s coal-producing region, not its coastal export factory zones. China’s heavy dependence on coal-fired power stations, its explosion in car ownership, and its rapid development of heavy industry have all contributed to continuing environmental disaster.

The Chinese government bears primary responsibility for turning this around. Until China starts to take the environment much more seriously – by preventing known polluters from reopening without cleaner processes, by raising price of electricity and water to encourage conservation, and by significantly increasing the penalties for violating environmental laws – the factories that make our goods are unlikely to feel much pressure to change.

Still, the environmentally aware must not ignore the irony of stuffing their Toyota Priuses full of products that help generate pollution strong enough to kill.

Globalization has allowed us to enjoy the benefits of people’s hard work across the world – by one conservative estimate, “made in China” goods save the average American family $500 a year. But by moving manufacturing to developing countries like China and counting ever-cheaper products as a fundamental human right, we lose sight of the environmental consequences of our addiction to cheap goods.

Alexandra Harney is the author of “The China Price: The True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage” (Penguin Press, 2008). Click here to read an excerpt.

Rights: © 2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Pollution Fight

Updated on Sep 24, 2008 – SCMP

The South China Morning Post did a great job keeping us abreast of the pollution in Beijing leading up to the Olympics.

We saw the progress (both good and bad) from regular photos taken from the same point over the Forbidden City.

I would like to see them continue to be published. Let’s see how long it takes Beijing to slip back into its old ways.

Wendy Allen, Stanley