|China's Pollution Problem: Beijing Scrambles to Host Green Games|
By Andreas Lorenz
July 21, 2008
Smog, dust particles, algae blooms: the high levels of pollution at Olympic
venues has the sporting world worried. The Chinese authorities are working
feverishly to address the problem -- closing factories, banning cars from the
roads, and renewing promises of "green games." But will it be enough?
Down in the courtyard there's a silver-colored building made of corrugated sheet
metal that looks something like a missile control center. Inside, large screens
hang on the wall with position lights and graphs showing current cloud
formations throughout China. Double rows of scientists in white coats sit
silently in front of computers and compile data.
A policeman stands gaurd amid the smog in Beijing's Tiananmen Square one month
before the Olympic Games start.Wang Chunlin, a man with a stubble haircut, is in
a good mood. The engineer employed by the Beijing Municipal Environmental
Protection Bureau has great news: "We're going to have clean air. August and
September are always the best time of the year anyway."
Wang smiles, aware of the importance of his forecasts. His country is in urgent
need of favorable environmental prognoses.
The Olympic Games are scheduled to get underway in Beijing in just three weeks
time. And the question of the weather and environmental conditions in the
Chinese capital is probably one of the biggest issues preoccupying people around
the world right now.
Beijing, with a population of 17 million, is one of the world's most polluted
cities. On days when there is smog people on the street take to wearing filter
masks. A recent measurement taken near the Olympic Stadium showed that the
concentration of dust particles in the air there was five times higher than the
limit recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). Many of the athletes
who will be competing for medals in Beijing are uneasy about this. Those who
will be taking part in endurance disciplines are particularly worried about
health issues and reduced ability to realize their potential. Experts already
feel certain that many track-and-field athletes will not be able to put in their
best performances due to air pollution.
The hosts, on the other hand, continue to give their assurances that things
aren't half as bad as they're being made out to be. The Chinese government
promised the International Olympic Committee (IOC) it would organize "green
games." Massive measures of a kind only possible in a totalitarian system
(including plant closures and driving bans) are being taken to avoid the
embarrassment of seeing cyclists or runners coughing and wheezing as they
struggle to make it to the finish line.
Last Thursday was of the kind of day the Chinese government is hoping to have
for the Olympics. A sunny blue sky over Beijing with hardly a cloud to be seen
and the western mountains clearly visible in the distance. Tourists could be
seen taking pictures of each other in front of the "Bird's Nest," the new
national stadium. Absolutely superb weather in China's capital.
However, the truth of the matter is that Beijing is normally more like a giant
sauna in August. The temperature goes up to around 40 degrees Celsius (104
degrees Fahrenheit), the humidity is high, and a gray haze hangs in the air.
Between August 8th and 24th last year there was not a single day when the air
quality was in compliance with WHO guidelines.
When smog forms the Forbidden City disappears behind a wall of gray. Only vague
outlines can be seen from the new futuristic television center on the 3rd Ring
Road despite its proximity. The western mountains are just a distant memory.
The city's residents cough, their eyes burn, a sticky wet film forms on
everything. Dust particles, nitrous oxide, and sulfur dioxide concentrations
rise to dramatic levels. The authorities send out text messages to warn asthma
sufferers to stay indoors and close the windows.
"My five-year-old son has had a chronic sore throat since he was two years old.
He has to clear his throat all the time," says Beijing secretary Wang Hongmei.
"That's because of the air pollution."
Part of this foul mixture comes out of the exhaust pipes of the more than three
million cars that jam the streets of Beijing day in and day out. Although the
city government has imposed European standards for exhaust emissions, so many
new vehicles are registered every day that even the strictest rules can't help.
Bringing Beijing to a Halt
Another problem is the fact that numerous factories and power stations are
located in residential areas. They're a curse from the past, a legacy Beijing
owes to Mao Zedong, the founder of the modern Chinese state. Mao saw smokestacks
and factory buildings side by side with residential housing and cultural centers
as a socialist ideal.
Smokestacks belonging to power stations even protrude into the sky
close to the Olympic Park. On the outskirts of the city there are dozens of
steel mills and chemicals plants busily contributing to China's economic growth.
Under adverse wind conditions streets, office buildings and apartment blocks are
shrouded in the foul-smelling gases they give off. When sand blows in from the
Gobi Desert and mixes with the fine dust that is stirred up all year round at
the countless construction sites in and around Beijing the air turns a
brownish-yellow color and triggers fits of coughing in people exposed to it.
The government spent the equivalent of €10.7 billion ($16.8 billion) over the
past several years in an effort to keep its "green games" pledge. Factories were
relocated, subway lines built, outdated boilers replaced. In addition, special
plans have been made for when the games actually begin. The idea is to bring
half of the city to a grinding halt.
On Sunday numerous construction sites and gas stations were shut down. Factories
have had to close or reduce their emissions by a third. For the next two months
a special driving ban will be in place in Beijing with cars only allowed to be
driven every other day. Around 300,000 vehicles that do not meet current exhaust
emission standards cannot be driven at all. No burning of grass or straw will be
allowed on the fields around Beijing.
"We've installed new scrubbers," Deputy Director Yu reports proudly. "We've been
able to reduce our sulfur dioxide emissions to 20 milligrams per cubic meter.
Just as the government requires."
But will measures like this be enough? "Go to the botanical gardens more often,"
was the advice I got not long ago from a senior Environment Ministry official
who asked to remain anonymous. "Everywhere else the dust particle concentrations
are so high that I'm not allowed to disclose them."
The blue dots on the graphic display at the Beijing Air Pollution Index (API)
makes it look like an aquarium in which bubbles are rising to the surface. On
many days between March 2007 and June 2008 concentrations ranged between 100 and
200 API points. On others they reached the 500 mark, constituting a significant
danger to public health.
Wang Chunlin, the man from Beijing's Environmental Protection Bureau is very
self-confident. His office has its own set of definitions for clean and dirty
air. For Wang the sky is blue when the API is at 100. When scientists in Hong
Kong speak of "slight pollution" Beijing reports "excellent" air quality for the
A propaganda battle is being fought over pollution measurements. Reporters stand
in front of the Olympic Stadium with measuring instruments and tell the world
that every breath drawn here will make you sick. Wang and his people are doing
everything they can to counteract this impression.
Chinese soldiers remove algae from near the Olympic Sailing Centre at Qingdao.A
total of 27 monitoring stations were set up to supply air quality data for the
Olympic Games host city. And recently the message has mostly been that
everything is just fine. However, an American scientist, Steven Andrews, noticed
that two monitoring stations were removed from locations where there is a high
volume of traffic and three new ones were set up at locations where pollution
levels are lower.
Andrews also found out that the pollution standards were secretly lowered, that
changes were made with regard to substances being measured, and that some
substances, such as ozone, were simply not measured at all. Andrews spoke of a
disinformation campaign. He says there is every reason to believe that Beijing's
effort to ensure that the Olympic Games will be "green" is headed for failure.
In his view, all that China has succeeded in doing thus far is to find clever
ways of covering up its inability to reduce pollution levels.
The athletes, whose performances will hopefully make the Beijing Olympics a
sports fest of superlatives, are perturbed by the situation. Many of them,
including the German, British, and Swedish track-and-field teams, have chosen
not to come to Beijing to prepare for the games and have gone to Japan or South
Korea instead. "We want to wait as long as possible before exposing ourselves to
the pollution there," says German high jumper Eike Onnen. The Olympic teams from
the Netherlands and Switzerland have gone to the coastal city of Dalian for
precompetition training. Most teams plan to fly to Beijing shortly before the
According to David Martin, exercise physiologist and respiratory expert for the
US marathon team, breathing the air in Beijing could be compared to "feeding an
athlete poison." Ethiopian world record holder Haile Gebrselassie decided to
withdraw from the marathon and will only be competing in the 10,000 meters. He
suffers from asthma and was afraid that running the longer distance in the
conditions that currently exist in Beijing could be harmful to his health.
American boxing team physician Frank Filiberto accompanied 11 boxers to Beijing
for a competition last November. On their first morning in the city his charges
returned from a 20-minute run complaining of burning eyes and breathing
problems: "In my opinion boxers are probably the finest athletes in the world,"
Filiberto said. "But they didn't think they could make it three rounds in
DER SPIEGELThe IOC has tried to play down the importance of the problem. After
all, even Greenpeace finds China's environmental legislation "progressive." IOC
officials say that the marathon and triathlon could be postponed if air
pollution levels are particularly high on the days the events are scheduled for.
But then pictures suddenly emerged that couldn't be denied. A gigantic carpet of
algae appeared in front of the city of Qingdao, right in the bay where the
Olympic sailing events are scheduled to take place.
Where the algae came from remains unknown. A random natural phenomenon? Or the
result of the poor water quality in the region caused by pollutant discharges
and excessive use of fertilizers over a period of decades?
Thousands of soldiers and volunteers spent several days fishing tons of green
algae out of the water and then built protective fences around the regatta
course. Disaster seems to have been averted for the time being, but no one is
certain a renewed algae bloom can be prevented.
The problems facing Beijing's water supply have so far failed to attract much
attention. Yet the city is drying out. More than two hundred rivers, streams,
and canals are marked in blue on official maps. But when you go look for them
what you often find is nothing but a dried-up bed where water used to be. This
loss of natural waterways has affected the Shunyi District where the Olympic
rowing and canoeing events are due to take place. The Chaobei River has been
gone for many years now, with nothing but weeds and bushes growing in the dry
Nevertheless the regatta course is now filled with three and half meters of
water. "It's fresh and clean. We're pumping it up out of the ground," says an
employee of a company the local waterworks has commissioned to do the job.
The same method will ensure that a number of rivers and canals will be filled
with water during the games. Environmentalists estimate that more than 200
million cubic meters of water will have to be pumped up out of ground to be able
to stage these sports events. Chinese farmers who are having to pump water up
out of deep wells to irrigate their fields are the ones who will have to pay the
price for this extravagance. "The games will inevitably exacerbate the water
crisis," says environmentalist and regime critic Dai Qing.
However, it would seem that the need to keep up appearances is more important to
the government. A new set of weather statistics appeared several days ago,
stating that there is a high probability that the weather is going to be drizzly
on August 8, the day of the opening ceremony.
Drizzly weather? That's unacceptable. The national weather service has made
contingency plans to send up rockets filled with chemicals designed to dissipate
rain clouds in the worst-case scenario. However, the ability of science to
control the weather is limited. Meteorologist Chen Zhenlin concedes: "When it
starts to come down real hard there's just not a whole lot we can do about it."