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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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June 4, 2008 6:22 AM

Fighting white pollution

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Suddenly, they're everywhere...trendy green totes, bulging with corn, pork and bok choi.

China's government has declared war on the thin plastic shopping bag. A nation-wide ban took effect Sunday - one that could drastically reduce 'white pollution' here; for years, tossed bags have carpeted Beijing. According to a survey, Chinese people use 3 billion plastic bags every day.

Sunday's ban arrived in time for the 2008 Olympics; organizers have promoted environmental awareness and responsible consumption ahead of the Games. Only three months remain. On Monday, authorities in Beijing fined a shop 10,000 yuan (US$1,200), citing a plastic bag violation.

Supermarkets and cornerstores now must charge for thicker, reusable plastic bags - in most cases 0.2 to 0.5 yuan. The government has encouraged Chinese shoppers to bring their own bags, preferrably cut from environmentally-friendly materials.

Ireland, Rwanda, Guatemala and San Francisco beat China to punch; a growing number of countries and cities around the world are considering (anti) plastic bag legislation. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and City Council President Richard Conlin have proposed a punitive 20-cent tax on plastic and paper bags. No nation-wide ban exists in the United States.

"We brought our own bags today!" crowed a young woman outside the Shuang'an branch Chaoshifa - one of Beijing's most popular grocery chains. "We heard about the ban from T.V. - it's a good thing. We want to protect the environment. We want to host a successful Olympic Games."

"I brought a bag here today," a middle-aged woman said. "Why? To protect the environment - the same as you foreigners do."

Chinese shoppers haven't revolted yet; 77.5 percent of respondents to an online survey conducted by CIIC-COMR, a market research firm, supported the ban.

"I'd say about 70 precent of our customers have been bringing their own bags," said a Chaoshifa checker. "It's great. I've been really impressed. Before the ban, few people brought their own bags. Very few."

Some of Beijing's smaller, cheaper stores will resist the ban...or lose business. Try charging 0.2 for a bag and 0.5 for a snack. It's possible that shoppers here will relapse.

"This plastic prohibition? Inconvient!" a elderly woman complained. "So inconvenient. I don't like change."

"I didn't bring my own bag today," said a young man. "I guess I forgot. I'm all for the ban. Next time I'll remember.

"What's the ban got to do with Beijing's Olympics? We need to protect the environment - that's part of hosting a Games."

"What a great idea," a young woman exclaimed. "I brought my own bag today - I'm not going to throw it away. It may take some time for everyone to get used to the ban, though."

A Chinese Amway pitch-man hovered outside of the Shuang'an branch Chaoshifa - promotional pamphlets in hand.

"We're a green company," he explained, pressing close. "We want to show the Chinese government the advantage of environmental protection. See, our slogan: huanbao xianzai, luse huilai (protect the environment now, enjoy a green tomorrow)."

"That'll be liang mao (0.2 yuan)," said a cornerstore owner. "We're charging for bags now. Not for profit - to reduce 'white pollution.' It's a big problem in Beijing. Hopefully now it'll start to improve."


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April 27, 2008 7:21 AM

Beijing's 'green' scene

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Three concepts have - officially - colored preparations for the 2008 Beijing Games: 'People's Olympics,' 'Hi-tech Olympics' and 'Green Olympics.'

Beijing's commitment to environmental protection ahead of the Games may or may not impress come August. But a slew of ambitious 'green' campaigns have indisputably transformed the city and garnered international attention.

In 2005, BOCOG (Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad) signed a UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) agreement - pledging to curb air, water and noise pollution.

Since then, the city has scrapped coal-burning furnances, rolled out 'green' buses, booted dirty factories and capped auto emissions.

Last December, Beijing narrowly achieved its 2007 goal - 245 'blue sky days.' Beginning June 1, Chinese shoppers will pay for plastic bags - retailers caught giving bags away will be fined.

(Beijing 2008 Offical Website)

But Beijing and China's environmental woes continue.

About 1,200 new cars hit the street here each week - Beijing claims 3.5 million vehicles today, up a million from a few years ago. The city contains thousands of construction sites - all sources of particle pollution.

Various Olympic athletes have questioned Beijing's air quality. Concerned that the city's pollution could affect their performance and/or health, a handful may pull out of the 2008 Games entirely.

The UNEP issued Beijing a progress report last year, stating that "significant strides are being made to 'green' the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games," but withheld final judgment:

"Beijing has implemented a number of initiatives to improve its air quality and reduce pollution...and can boast significant achievements. Most of these initiatives will benefit the citizens of Beijing long after the Games have closed, provided that the impetus brought about by hosting the Olympics is continued, with Games-related measures being adopted and implemented on a long-term basis by the authorities...Air quality has improved for some of the monitored pollutants. However, it can take years to determine significant changes in air quality. It would appear that more effort may be needed to address the legitimate concerns of the International Olympic Committee and other stakeholders."

Before BOCOG adopted the concept 'Green Olympics,' dedicated professionals and volunteers were working to protect the city's environment. They've kept on. And, for better or worse, the 2008 Games have altered their world.

"If Beijing wants to remain a global city and China's cultural-political capital, the condition of its environment must improve," said Fei Xiaojing, who heads the volunteer group Green Student Forum (GSF). "Olympics or no - this is necessary. However, the Games have given our government a push."

"The government has instituted a number of concrete environmental measures to ensure a clean Olympics," Michael Zhao, Beijing coordinator of the International Fund for China's Environment (IFCE) said. "But the Games' most beneficial results are less tangible - common people here are thinking about the environment because they want the Olympics to be successful."

Beijing's top-down 'greening' has empowered students like Fei and served as a platform for Zhao's IFCE. GSF has partnered with city government on exciting projects; Olympic fever has helped IFCE raise funds abroad.

Yet Daniela Salaverry of Pacific Environment, an international NGO based in San Francisco, contends that the Games have failed to nourish grass-roots environmentalism. Both IFCE and Pacific Environment fund GSF.

"The Olympics are a natural 'news hug' - an opportunity for local groups to seek support," Salaverry said. "But the Games are limiting, too. Groups have leveraged the Olympics less than we in the West would think."

Top-down efforts to better Beijing's environment were designed with the 2008 Games in mind. According to Salaverry, Chinese activists are engaged long-term.

They also wield less power than environmentalists in America. Beijing has allowed groups like GSF to grow - providing they don't push too hard.

"What's interesting is that there may be more space for activists after the Olympics," said Salaverry. "No one here wants to politicize and ruin the Games - so it's sensitive right now on the ground."

GSF has collaborated with government nonetheless, organizing students against car pollution. Every year, GSF volunteers tour Beijing by bicycle, wearing Olympic-themed t-shirts to promote 'green' awareness. Beijing's Enviromental Education center backs the event.

"It's true - NGOs must consider environmental protection long-term," Fei admitted. "But there's nothing wrong with the concept 'Green Olympics.' The government has made environmental protection a big deal in the news and on TV. No single NGO could have done that. We're in favor of cooperation."

A team of Beijing university students established GSF in 1996 as an umbrella organization. Most Chinese universities host 'green' clubs - some more active than others. GSF's founding members traveled to southwest China hoping to save the endangered Golden Monkey.

"In high school I really liked languages," said Fei, a People's University of China second-year graduate student. "But I also watched the Discovery Channel. Now I am very passionate about protecting the environment. For me, that's how it all began."

By 2003 GSF developed into a known and respected organization - promoting environmental protection among Beijing youth. Today the group is comprised of 20 volunteer members, representing seven area universities.

"We're majoring in different subjects," Fei said. "We bring different skills to GSF - from law to computer technology. And we're good friends. What we share is a desire to make a change and protect our environment."

GSF receives support from Pacific Environment and IFCE, two non-profits. Pacific Environment is 21 years old, a veteran of community development and forest protection in Siberia.

A self-billed 'watchdog/innovator/advocate/facilitator/catalyst/investor' Pacific Environment launched its China program in 2001. Now the organization helps train and finance 11 Chinese groups.

A Pacific Environment partner in Lanzhou saved that city's electric cars. Another partner, Green Anhui, counseled houseboat fishermen on the scummy Huai River - turning reporters onto an illegal battery dump.

"We send money and work with environmentalists seeking to professionalize," Salaverry said. "We answer their questions about international funders; we do a lot of networking - get Chinese groups talking to each other. We also promote collaboration between government and environmentalists at the local level."

"Host a 'Green Olympics,' build a 'green' homeland"

In Siberia, Pacific Environment worked to prevent a fire sale of natural resources following the Soviet Union's collapse. China's plight has challenged the organization.

"Here, we're encouraging civil participation - because conditions are already dire," explained Salaverry, Pacific Environment's China co-director. "Three hundred million Chinese lack access to clean drinking water."

A team of U.S.-educated Chinese, including Zhao, founded IFCE in 1996. Not only a funder, IFCE furthers environmental education and U.S.-China exchange. Next month, the organization will co-host a high-level U.S.-United Nations delegation to China.

"I came back to China from the U.S. for the first time when my father passed away, in 1993," Zhao said. "To me, the country looked like one big construction site. This was still in the early stages of China's development.

"We were concerned. We felt strongly that China could learn from industrialized nations' mistakes. Having lived in the U.S., we knew the costs of development."

Last month, IFCE kicked off a community health/environmental awareness program in Xian with pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson. The program will eventually spread to Kunming, Shanghai, Beijing and Wuhan.

Pacific Environment and IFCE don't staff the Chinese groups they fund. According to Salaverry, there are close to 4,000 environmental organizations operating in China - 300 in Beijing alone. Most depend on enthusiastic young people.

"In the future I'll work for an environmental NGO," said Fei. "But first I want to work in public relations at a large company. I think I'd gain a lot of perspective."

Fei joined GSF in 2005, while studying at Beijing's Forestry University. A year later, she agreed to head the group's training program. She stepped into GSF's top post last year.

"Beijing has so many environmental NGOs and government organizations - we had to carve ourselves a niche," Fei said. "We speak with young people about local problems. After we graduate, we'll go forth and multiply. We're environmental leaders."

Few Chinese schools teach environmentalism, although 'green' curricula are catching on.

"That's why the Olympics are great - they're raising awareness in China," Fei remarked. "I know that in the U.S., small children are taught conservation. That's not yet the case here. I wasn't until I was 20 years old."

IFCE holds an annual College Environmental Conference in Beijing, and has trained GSF members to conduct 'green' campus assessments and test for energy efficiency.

"The schools save millions - it's a win-win," Zhao said. "We're trying to enlighten China's students, so they'll be the driving force for change."

GSF, in particular, has championed Beijing's maligned waterways. With assistance from Pacific Environment, the organization began to check for pollution in 2003. GSF volunteers also surveyed riverside residents, dispensing advice and relaying concerns.

This year, the group will produce a hiker-friendly river map, highlighting historical sites and Beijing's endangered waterways.

"Have you visited our rivers? They're dirty," Fei exclaimed. "We've tested a bunch near Olympic sites - rivers that are sources of drinking water. It's important for these rivers to be clean, and not only for appearance's sake."

Some Beijing waterways carry industrial waste. Others choke on plastic bags and beer bottles. The city's lakes are drying up. Its underground aquifers are close to empty. Beijing is overpopulated - a water-poor municipality of 17 million.

Canals will pump 'emergency' water from neighboring Hebei province to Beijing for the Olympics this summer.

"Unfortunately, most people don't understand," Fei said. "They don't save water in their everyday lives. We tell them - 'water is precious.'"

Fei credits the government for tackling Beijing's water crisis before the 2008 Games. And she's optimistic.

"Our rivers are less polluted than they were in 2003," Fei said. "On the other hand, this will take some time."

Salaverry sees 'Green Olympics' as a stand-alone phenomenon.

"We've got two movements here - an Olympic environmental movement and a long-term environmental movement," she said. "Right now Beijing is trying to 'get it done' - it's game-time for the government, literally.

"There's been a ton of negative reporting on China's environment, but people are doing amazing things outside of Beijing. Pacific Environment supports the activists pursuing long-term change. They'll be here long after the Olympic athletes go home."

Zhao thinks the Chinese government is doing what it can to host a 'green' Games and keep the country clean.

"China's leaders realize that ruining the environment will halt economic development," he said. "Of course 'Green Olympics' is about face, pride, politics. Underneath, however, the motivations are real."

"Pollution is a global problem," Fei suggested. "Here in Beijing, we're trying to solve it. So...welcome to China!"


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April 24, 2008 2:05 PM

Beijing 2008 Q&A: Wu Dengming

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Mr. Wu Dengming is a force for nature. His business card, printed green on white, reveals as much.

  • President, Green Volunteer League of Chongqing
  • Director, Chinese Environmental Protection Federation
  • Vice-Chairman, Chongqing Behavioral Science Academic Society
  • Chairman, World Bank Loan Supervision/Cuonsultation Committee
  • NGO Representative, United Nations Sustainable Development Summit
  • China Environmental Journalists Association Earth Award Winner
  • National 'Lei Feng' Volunteer Role Model
  • Ford Motor Company Environmental Protection Award Winner
  • Top-ten Star, China Public Welfare
  • Chongqing 30 Years of Environmental Protection Tribute Recipient
  • Chongqing Youth Direction Award Winner
  • Top-ten Person, China Legal News 2007

Beneath his shiny bald head and worried brow, Wu's eyes are dancing. The bullish environmentalist, a former People's Liberation Army officer, has fought to save China's forests and streams for more than 20 years.


Campaigns to reign in Chongqing's biggest, baddest polluters haven't always endeared Wu to local leadership (Chongqing is a large municipality in western China). According to a Washington Post story from 2003 - "Wu Dengming has been roughed up and threatened. His researchers have been arrested. His petitions have been ignored."

Beijing's successful Olympic bid, however, has ushered in a new era for Chinese environmentalists. The central government has flipped its pockets inside- 'People's Olympics,' 'Hi-tech Olympics' and 'Green Olympics.'

According to the 2008 Beijing website:

Environmentally friendly technologies and measures will be widely applied in environmental treatment to structures and venues. Urban and rural afforestation and environmental protection will be widely enhanced in an all-round manner. Environmental awareness will be promoted among the general public, with citizens greatly encouraged to make "green" consumption choices and urged to actively participate in various environmental improvement activities to help better the capital's ecological standards and build a city better fit for all to enjoy.

This June, Wu will jog the Olympic torch through Chongqing. He's been named a Green Olympics torchbearer - one of ten men and women across the country so recognized.

Decades ago, the retired university administrator inspired student volunteers to collect garbage and plant trees. In 1995 he founded an NGO - the Green Volunteer League of Chongqing (GVL).

During the late 1990s, GVL helped villagers develop eco-tourism and forest agriculture as alternatives to illegal logging. Wu has also worked to keep the Yangtze river and its tributaries clean. In 2003, an enormous reservoir - 410 miles long and 575 feet deep - began to form behind the Three Gorges Dam, China's US$30 billion hydroelectric project. Sewage, agricultural run-off and industrial waste have seen poured in. GVL promotes eco-agriculture and environmental education as well.

I recently discussed the 2008 Olympic Games and environmental protection with Wu for Blogging Beijing.

Today, you're considered a sort of 'Green Hero' - how did you begin?

It all started at Chongqing University in 1985, a long time ago. We were concerned about the impact of rapid modernization on the environment. First, we organized a campus group. We took trips to Huang Mountain and planted trees. We visited parks in Chongqing and asked people to help protect the environment. We collected garbage.

How has the 'Green Olympics' concept affected your work with GVL?

The concept was actually introduced at the 2000 Games in Sydney; it just didn't catch on. 'Green Olympics' has been good for China - government officials' environmental awareness is much-improved. From the beginning, we hoped our organization could participate.

Of course, the Olympics are the Olympics and we're an NGO. We haven't benefited financially from the Games. We still belong to a poor sector. It's hard for Chinese NGOs - we don't get much money from the government, unlike NGOs in the United States.

If your money doesn't come from the Chinese government, where does it come from?

There are so many foreign NGOs in China, and many funders from the United States. They spend a lot of money, but not so wisely. Too little reaches the Chinese laobaixing (common people). Too little reaches the environment.

Not enough real work is done. It's a circus - zuoxiu (for show). If US$100 is allocated, perhaps US$4 reaches the laobaixing - not very fair. And so much money is being spent. For example, Coca-Cola Co. will spend US$20 million on river water conservation by 2012.

What new programs has GVL launched over the past few years?

In 2006, we organized Chongqing's first 'no car day.' We're also promoting a day where we tell people in Chongqing - set your air conditioning to 26 degrees (Celsius). Don't set it lower. We've been working on public health alongside environmental health.

How would you describe the state of the environment in and around Beijing?

Beijing is China's political and cultural capital - it should be protected. Beijing should represent the best of China. But Beijing's environment is not so good. This is unfortunate. There's no reason for Beijing to serve as China's industrial capital or even an industrial hub. It should be like Washington, D.C. or Paris - a preserved, beautiful city.

On the one hand, Beijing's air has improved. Many factories have been moved out or shut down. But the city remains polluted. And why? Too many cars!

You see all these campaigns in Beijing - campaigns to protect the environment. But people still abuse air conditioning, still wear fancy clothes, still build mansions. Meanwhile, those without money suffer. The environment suffers. The city has so many cultural resources - these shouldn't go to waste. Beijingers' attitudes and lifestyles must change.

The only way to change attitudes and lifestyles is through education - in school, at home, in the workplace, in the government.

Perhaps Beijingers' attitudes and lifestyles are related to China's rapid economic development - can the city grow AND protect its environment?

Economic development and environmental protection can move forward in harmony. In fact, there is a symbiotic relationship. If the environment is destroyed, Beijing will not continue to grow.

However, China needs help. Look at all of our mountains. Where there was once August snow-pack, there is none today. Look at the Yangtze and Huai rivers. Upstream vegetation has been destroyed. Both rivers are muddy rather than clear. Industrialized nations like the U.S. can help by lending China experience and by consuming less.

Beijing's environment is in trouble. But cities across the globe are facing similar problems. Fly over Los Angeles in an airplane and tell me it doesn't look like Beijing.

The Chinese government has pushed for environmental protection ahead of Beijing's Olympics - could China's green movement stall when the Games are done?

After the Olympics, this movement will continue. China can't go back. Now people know what needs to happen. Organizations like ours are starting to play a bigger role in society.

Interactive map of Beijing/China - follow up on posts and get oriented:



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January 10, 2008 7:01 AM

Not so blue after all?

Posted by Daniel Beekman

I thought I'd better direct Blogging Beijing readers to a Wall Street Journal opinion piece written by Steven Q. Andrews - "Beijing's Sky Blues." Andrews is an independent environmental consultant based in Washington D.C. and was a 2006 Princeton in Asia fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Beijing.

According to Andrews, only altered collection methods allowed the Chinese government and Beijing's Olympic organizers to achieve their goal of 245 'blue sky' days in 2007. If not for the change, he says, 2007 would have registered 190 'blue sky' days - fewer than were recorded in 2002.

Andrews suggests that Beijing air scientists (or at least their press secretaries) are engaging in 'fuzzy math' and calls for increased transparency. He cites a sobering Beijing University study conducted by environmental science professors that blames particulate pollution for 25,000 deaths here in 2002.

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January 3, 2008 5:20 PM

Blue sky over Beijing?

Posted by Daniel Beekman

A week ago, I woke up to smog - thick, low, lung-arresting smog.

When 15 of its 16 monitoring stations rated last Thursday's air pollution 'worst,' Beijing's environmental protection bureau asked children and elderly people to remain inside. Few Beijingers blinked. Life here - from bricklaying to badminton - went on as usual, smog notwithstanding.

December 27 received a pollution rating of 421 (micrograms of particulate air matter per cubic meter). December 28, last Friday, rated 500 - 50 times the level deemed safe by the World Health Organization. (New York Times)

Biking between errands in west Beijing, I saw specks of gray in the air. Thursday's main pollutant was particulate matter - attributed primarily to construction, automotive exhaust and coal burning.

A toddler and his grandmother check out a construction site last Thursday, near Beijing's Fifth Ring Road.

For months now, Beijing's officials and Olympic organizers have been beating the drum of environmental improvement - attempting to reassure anxious athletes, a skeptical press and the International Olympic Committee.

The city, which has already spent US$16.4 billion to combat pollution - roughly 3 percent of China's national gross domestic product - is planning to pull a million cars off its streets and close (temporarily) some smoke-spewing factories during the Games. (Eastday)

"We are determined to ensure that air conditions meet the necessary standards in August 2008," Liu Qi, president of the Beijing's Olympic organizing committee, told IOC chief Jacques Rogge on December 11. (New York Times)

Liu's vice-president, Jiang Xiaoyu, agreed.

"I believe that we can overcome all difficulties, all risks, and run a very sound and successful Olympic Games next year." (Times of London)

Rogge has warned Beijing's organizers that the IOC may postpone or delay endurance-based events like cycling to protect athletes from air pollution.

This fall, two Ethiopian runners, Kenesia Bekele and Meseret Defar, announced plans to scale down their Olympic ambitions and referred to environmental conditions in Beijing as 'disgusting.' (London Telegraph)

The United States' Olympic committee has announced it will give every U.S. Olympian a carbon-filter mask to use in Beijing - for shopping, touring and training. Athletes won't wear the masks to compete. (USA Today)

"Of course I noticed the pollution last Thursday," a Beijinger recently told me. "The sky was yellow, and between 5-6pm you couldn't see the road clearly. But, generally, the air here is ok. We're used to it."

"Beijing's air pollution shouldn't give the Olympic athletes too many problems," he said. "It will be hot and humid in August, but other than that I don't think the conditions will hurt their performance."

Promises to reduce air pollution helped Beijing win the right to host the 2008 Games and environmental initiatives have headlined the city's Olympic preparations. Now some scientists are questioning whether the Beijing will truly achieve a "Green Olympics."

(Note: China pledged to follow a 'Green Olympics Protocol' in preparing for Beijing 2008, and enlisted help from the United States Department of Energy.)

Thursday's smog particularly alarmed Olympic organizers because Beijing had yet to fufill its 'blue sky' target for 2007. Not until Monday - New Year’s Eve Day - did Beijingers enjoy the year's 246th 'blue sky' day. Organizers say they are shooting for 256 'blue sky' days this year. (Xinhua)

'Blue sky' days, according to Beijing's environmental protection bureau, are those boasting less than 100 micrograms of particulate air matter per cubic meter. The city launched its 'blue sky' project in 1998, and saw just 100 'blue sky' days that year. (Xinhua)

Contrary to popular foreign opinion, Beijing sparkles on truly clear afternoons – I swear. But most of the city's 'blue sky' days are, by international standards, highly polluted.

"We anticipated the last 'blue sky' day more than 10 days ago, but lingering fog and sandstorms frustrated us in the past week," explained Du Shaozhong, deputy director-general of the city's environmental protection bureau. (Xinhua)

The number of 'blue sky' days per year in Beijing has increased steadily for nearly a decade - which seems to suggest that real progress has been made. Sulfur dioxide emissions have dropped more than 25 percent since 2001 - tougher regulations now require Beijing's factories and power plants to burn cleaner coal.

Olympic organizers have also overseen the planting of millions of trees - on the Olympic Green (including a 580-hectacre Olympic Forest Park), as part of an enormous greenbelt northeast of the city (designed to shelter China's capital from desertification and polluted winds) and around Beijing. When complete, the Olympic Green will be 2.5 times larger than New York's Central Park.

Beijing has also launched major environmental initiatives in the areas of education, energy, waste/water and transportation – "visit the United Nations Environmental Programme's website for that organization’s 2007 Beijing report."

Yet air pollution remains a serious problem, because Beijing continues to grow. The same United Nations study referenced above called it "the single largest environmental and public health issue affecting the city." (New York Times)

Since 2001, the city's gross domestic product has leaped 144 percent. More than 1.7 billion square feet of new real estate has gone under construction since 2002, and the Beijing now supports roughly 10,000 building sites. The city's coal consumption actually peaked in 2006 - at 30 million tons. (New York Times and Agence France-Presse)

Construction workers struggle with metal rods atop a partially completed elevated expressway in west Beijing.

Add to Beijing's construction fumes the exhaust from 3 million motor vehicles - 40,000 more each month - and you've got a whole lot of dangerous, airborne particulate matter. Last week's smog-storm was a case in-point.

On Monday, I went in search of locals' reactions.

"Before last week, I would have said that it's been pretty good," remarked a young woman, on her way home from the grocery store. "But last week, there was something bad in the air."

About 40 to 50 percent of the major pollutants in Beijing's air – nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and particulate matter - come from vehicle exhaust, according to a professor of environmental science at Beijing University (Xinhua).

"Last Thursday was awful, and very uncomfortable," a middle-aged woman standing outside McDonald's told me. "Obviously!"

She owns a car but doesn't drive very often - only when she needs to travel long distances.

"Because of the Olympics, the government has invested a lot of money in Beijing's air," the native Beijinger said. "They (the government) are really making an effort. But it's a hard problem to solve. We have too many cars."

Based on a government-sponsored survey released March last year involving 1,520 interviews, more than 90 percent of Beijingers attribute air pollution to auto-exhaust fumes and 87 are fed up with traffic noise. (Xinhua)

"Although last Thursday was bad, the air here is getting better," said a man waiting in line for a movie. "There shouldn't be a problem with the athletes - it's not as serious as the newspapers say. When I was a child in Beijing there was much more coal burning. That was worse. Back then there were no cars."

In 2007, scores of auto-emissions testing centers had been set up across Beijing and, on Tuesday (January 1), the city announced stricter fuel standards. Retailers are now required to supply gasoline and diesel clean enough to meet the Euro IV standard - currently observed in the European Union.

Before Tuesday, Beijing retailers were held to the Euro III standard, introduced to the city in late 2005. According to Chinese officials, the earlier move cut sulfur dioxide emissions (which cause acid rain) by almost 2,500 tons per year. They expect the new standards lop off another 1,840 tons.

It appears that the higher cost of Euro IV fuel will not affect Beijing consumers - the government plans to shoulder that cost. (Reuters, Xinhua) In the United States, California has passed the world's most stringent fuel/emissions legislation.

"I didn't even notice it," a young man told me when I asked him about the air pollution last Thursday. "I drove to work, spent all day there and drove home. The traffic was bad, though."

Since 1999, Beijing has deployed more than 1,900 buses running on compressed natural gas - the largest fleet of its kind in the world. By August, it may boast as many as 18,000. Nearly 79,000 new low-emissions taxis (Volkswagens and Hyundais) replaced older, dirtier models in 2003. (Business Week)

Over the summer, the city also cut public transport prices. A ride on Beijing's subway costs only 2 Yuan (just over 25 US cents), and now, with a swipe-card introduced in 2006 (yitongka), most buses are 4 Mao (5 US cents).

But China's capital hasn't adopted high car ownership fees. In Shanghai, by contrast, license plates can cost up to US$7,000 and that city adds roughly one-fourth as many vehicles per year as Beijing.

Three college-aged girls weren't miffed by the recent air pollution.

"Whatever," one told me. "Just a little fog. Although I heard there was a problem on Zhongguancun (a large street). They had to turn on the traffic lights (on Thursday afternoon)."

"Last Thursday? Really bad? The newspaper said that?" chuckled a perfume peddler. "It's much nicer than before, anyway. The government is managing it. When they restricted the odd, then even license plate numbered cars, the air was great. Don't worry - we have many 'blue sky' days now. The government is taking care of it."

From August 17-20, 2007, Beijing's urban districts conducted a mass experiment, restricting (in theory) vehicles with odd-numbered, then even-numbered license plates. According to one of the city's vice-mayors, the experiment took 1.31-1.36 million cars off the road. (Wall Street Journal)

Beijing will likely employ similar restrictions during this August's Games - a plan most Beijingers are enthusiastic about.

"I think it's a good idea," a tricycle trash collector, originally from Henan province, told me. "I ride my cart 30 minutes to work everyday, and the traffic can be horrible."

"It's hard to earn money here - there isn't enough garbage to collect," he said. "There are too many others like me. We're competitive. Will the government stick to its new traffic plan after the Games? It's hard to say. I kind of doubt it."

Coal consumption has played an important role in Beijing's Olympic/environmental drama. Most houses here are heated by coal, and coal powers nearly all factories. The city has refitted hundreds of thousands of coal burners after banning the use of coal inside its Third Ring Road.

Many of Beijing's dirtiest factories have been moved outside the city in recent years, and officials have discussed halting production at those that remain during the 16-day Games. China’s flagship corporation and Beijing’s biggest polluter - Capital Steel (Shougang) - has announced it will continue to operate during the 2008 Olympics, at a minimum level. This year, the industrial giant plans to cut production from eight to four million tons. (Xinhua)

"Beijing's pollution is really bad," said a glove peddler. "But it's getting better. Last year, after work, I always had dirt on my face. This year, the sandstorms haven't been so bad."

The city has dealt with sandstorms for centuries - when winds whip down from the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, to Beijing's northwest. Beijing is protected by a mountain range and 40 billion recently planted trees. But damaging use all over north China has, in the last 50 years, caused the desert to creep closer.

"The sandstorms are way fewer than before," an elderly man told me. "I was 'sent down' from Beijing to the countryside in 1958. Besides being 're-educated,' we planted lots of trees near Zhengjiakou, in Inner Mongolia. I was 22 years old then. I guess people are glad hosting the Olympics has improved the weather here. But we started it."

"I read the newspaper and I have my theories," he said, before leaving to buy ice cream for his grandson. "Last Friday, I read a few different articles and put them together. There was an accident at a factory in southern Beijing - releasing a lot of sodium dioxide. Also, a big coal-burning factory opened in Shaanxi (province) - and they dynamited a mountain."

"But I think you people in the 'western' countries ask too China for too much, too fast. China is a developing country. You made waste for 200 years and now you're asking us to quit after 30."

Come August, Beijing's Olympic organizers will pray for strong winds. That's what drove the smog away last Friday. Curiously, two security guards I spoke with weren't pleased.

"First of all, there wasn't even any pollution," one told me. "Second of all, I hate this wind. I'd much rather deal with bad air than cold wind."

A young couple pedal into the smog last Thursday.

"I'm worried," said a middle-aged man, also waiting to see a movie. "Last week was pretty bad. We shouldn't try to improve our environment because of the Olympics. We should try to improve our environment because it's the right thing to do. I don't think that, after the Games, our government will continue to protect the environment of Beijing."

If no winds blow, the city's Olympic organizers may resort to Plan B - cloud seeding. Officials say they will have a fleet of aircraft ready to bomb the sky with silver iodide. Supposedly, this would clear clouds and bring down cleansing rain.

"The air might get bad, but it doesn't last long," said a policeman Monday. He smiled proudly. "I work outside, but I'm totally accustomed to the pollution."

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