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Extreme Traffic Measure As Air Worsens

Capital may resort to more extreme traffic measure as air worsens

Al Guo – Updated on Jul 25, 2008 – SCMP

Beijing’s pollution pledge took another hit yesterday as its air went from bad to worse because of unfavourable weather, prompting environmental officials to consider more extreme traffic rules.

Yesterday was the fifth day of odd-even restrictions, which took half of the city’s 3.3 million private vehicles off the road. Drivers may use their cars on alternate days, depending on the last digit of their number plates.

But the measure’s inability to improve air quality has become a source of frustration. Residents only had to look out their windows to realise air quality had worsened, with visibility in many urban areas down to about 200 metres.

Beijing’s composite air pollution index rose to 113, following readings of 50 to 70 on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, and 89 on Wednesday. A reading between 100 and 200 is defined as having the potential to severely affect people with respiratory problems and make breathing difficult for most other people.

Environmental official Li Xin attributed the problem to the weather. “The air just does not move … There is nothing we can do to change weather conditions.”

The municipal environmental protection bureau has the power to take more cars off the road, and a bureau source said it was considering that option. The source said an extreme plan, which allowed cars to be driven only when the last digit of their number plate corresponded with the date (such as 5 on the 25th), could be used today.

“They may implement it whenever they consider the air quality has become too bad,” the source said.

The move would take 90 per cent of private vehicles off the road and greatly reduce exhaust fumes. Taxis, buses and government vehicles are covered by different restrictions.

Environmental analyst Zhu Tong said the extreme traffic ban was very close to becoming a reality. “There are still traffic jams on city roads despite the odd-even restriction, and I think it’s legitimate to take more cars off the road if we give the highest priority to air quality.”

Air quality has been a constant thorn in the side for the host city, and International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge had said some endurance events would have to be rescheduled if air quality threatened the health of athletes.

There is no universally agreed standard on how much air pollution can harm an athlete in competition.

Environment bureau deputy director Du Shaozhong said the pledge was in line with World Health Organisation standards – that developing countries contain their airborne particulates under 150 micrograms per cubic metre. The standard is low compared with Japanese or European Union requirements but on a par with the US. When the pollution index reached 113, the particulates were only between 90 to 110 per cubic metre.

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