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Praying for Blue Skies

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Blue SkiesNothing can stop the Beijing Olympics train. Except, maybe,pollution.

A dark specter is haunting Beijing. The specter of pollution. And the cloak of industrial darkness that shrouds the city everyday is threatening to ruin what the capital is so intensely preparing for — the 2008 Olympics.

The city isn’t even worried anymore if it has adequate facilities to host the games; at the rate Beijing is going in its infrastructure development, it can even start boasting of constructing the best facilities the games has seen in recent history.

Nowadays, what worries the hosts of the next Olympiad is the air — something it can’t fully control. But the government says it is doing everything possible to lift the gray cloud over what is known as among the dirtiest urban centers in the world. In fact, it is even confident the games will be played under blue skies.

But, right now, the situation is bad. According to a recent study on Beijing’s air quality conducted by Chinese and American researchers, the capital may have difficulty coping with smog and clearing the air in time for the games next summer.

The study further warned that dirty industrial fumes brought in by the wind from nearby areas, aside from the city’s own gas emissions, continue to worsen the city’s air quality.

Blue Sky Day
Beijing issues a regular Air Pollution Index that advises ordinary citizens regarding the city’s air condition. The index takes average values across the city over a 24-hour period. If the overall average drops to a certain level, called a “Blue Sky Day,” then folks are given the go-ahead to venture out.

But the World Health Organization (WHO) said this standard is “seriously flawed.”

The WHO explained that sampling was done randomly and some spots of the city, where dangerous pollution levels may exist, fail to be surveyed.

Experts also said the machines China uses for its air inspection do not have the capacity to detect all hazardous pollutants. In the past, pollutants present in the Beijing air have caused breathing problems and lung damage among citizens.

Another issue noted by the WHO is that the level pegged for a blue sky day is in itself problematic. The country’s national limits on major air pollutants, for example, are lenient and lower than the standards suggested by the WHO. So a clear day in Beijing may be far from being pollution-free.

The effects of Beijing’s economic expansion and corresponding construction efforts have also directly affected the city’s air quality.

Particulate matter from the construction areas mixes with debris from coal-burning power plants, plus factory fumes from nearby provinces. Then there are the effects of vehicle gas emissions that, according to reports from Xinhua, now account for 40% to 50% of the city’s major pollutants.

Summertime Games
Since the games will be played at the height of summer, air conditioning usage is expected to raise the city’s overall fuel consumption. Aside from that, ozone, a chemical produced during sunny days, is expected to build up during the games and may cause widespread respiratory damage among participants and spectators. The chemical also forms a colorless atmospheric film that traps heat and other pollutants that may affect lung function.

The situation is bad during cold weather as well. Just last month, a build-up of fog caused the pollution level to rise, prompting the city’s weather office to warn children and the elderly to stay indoors. This situation is what Olympics officials are worried about.

Grounding the Games
Last month, International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge warned that Beijing’s poor air quality may force organizers to halt certain events, such as distance running and other endurance sports.

“We will not hesitate to delay or postpone events if the air quality could harm the athletes,” Rogge was quoted as saying.

But the IOC chief said the Olympics committee appreciates the efforts the city is taking to clean up the air, saying Beijing’s ambitious efforts to improve its air quality will produce long-term benefits for the capital.

Clean Up, Green Up
As of last month, the capital has poured more than $16 billion into its air clean up efforts. Nearby factories that were found lagging in standards were shut down and relocated. What’s more, construction projects that have nothing to do with the Olympics have been stopped.

The government also converted coal-fired power plants into natural-gas ones and planted millions of trees in Beijing alone to “green up” its cleaning efforts.

According to Fen Yuquian, a Beijing environmental protection official, cars have been grounded in favor of stricter measures against emissions. The government hopes that new standards, to be implemented by 2008, will help curb the amount of carbon and sulfur-dioxide exhaust from the city’s 3.1 million cars.

Wanting to pull down the number of cars to only a million by next year, Beijing has required new vehicles to conform to the stricter standards. Even gas stations in Beijing are required to meet the new guidelines.

Everything Possible
Despite their caveat on the possibility of grounding certain events due to pollution, Olympics officials said they are confident in the sincerity and efforts of the Chinese government.

During a briefing in Chicago (which is bidding to host the games in 2012), IOC chief Rogge said, “The Chinese are doing everything they can to alleviate the problem.” He added that he was sure what Beijing is doing will yield good results by August next year.

Du Shaozong, deputy head of the Beijing Environment Bureau, said, “One reason we are keen to guarantee Olympic air quality is that in the long run, improvements help the city.”

Judging by its anti-pollution efforts alone, Chinese officials have indeed gone all out to ensure a successful staging of the Olympics, China’s coming-out party as a superpower.

print ed: 12/07


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