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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.

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