Earth Island Institute logo, tap or click to visit the Institute home page

Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Winter 2008 > Features


Torch Smog

Can Beijing clean its air before the Olympics?


It’s August 8 – exactly one year until Beijing’s “Green Olympics” – and I’m in a taxi plodding along the city’s crowded Fourth Ring Road. Near the “Bird’s Nest,” Beijing’s main Olympic stadium, high-rise buildings less than two miles away vanish in a milky shroud of hot, polluted air.

The murky firmament is not what anxious Beijing authorities want, especially as International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge visits Beijing for the one-year countdown ceremonies.

By evening, the haze is mostly gone, just in time for a big Olympic gala in Tiananmen Square. The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) may be breathing easier, but the light blue summer sky isn’t enough to chase away worrisome clouds hovering over Beijing 2008.

Beijing’s original Olympic dream – to host the 2000 Olympics – evaporated when Sydney won the bid by two votes. Beijing wanted the Games in order to display China’s economic achievements, buff the city and country’s reputation after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, and tamp down domestic dissatisfaction by creating a unifying source of pride. However, the US Congress – intent on punishing China for the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators – lobbied the IOC to reject Beijing.

Environmental worries also played a role. In the 1990s, Beijing was already famous for its bad air, ranking among the world’s worst cities for air pollution. Beijing tried to minimize smog during the IOC’s 1993 inspection by limiting coal burning and turning off stoves at school cafeterias. But Beijing’s air remained dirty and contributed to Sydney’s victory.

Fourteen years later, Beijing is cleaner and greener, but the stakes are a lot higher. The Olympics are no longer just an elite sporting event. Beginning with the Sydney Games, they have morphed into a pageant of environmental correctness. As a result, the world is paying as much attention to Beijing’s pledge to host a “Green Olympics” as it is to the economic and social achievements the Games were meant to highlight.

The pressure on Beijing to fulfill its pledge is considerable, due to a cultural concern with “face” as well as a desire to satisfy citizen expectations. But the rest of the world doesn’t care about Beijing’s pride. It just wonders whether the Olympics will spur China to make far-reaching environmental changes. As the opening day of the Games approaches, the big question is whether short-term “face” or long-term change will win out.

Greening the Olympics

Beijing is not the first city aiming for a “Green Olympics.” Environmental sustainability has been an important aspect of the Olympics for more than a decade.

Local environmental groups were first to push for greener Games. Norwegian environmentalists pressured Lillehammer to put environmental protection at the center of its Olympic plan, in part as a response to the destruction of woodlands and mountainsides in the French Alps caused by the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville. The 1994 Lillehammer Winter Games featured more than 20 environmental projects, focusing on energy conservation, recycling, and natural building materials. Environmentalism was so important that bullets from the biathlon were retrieved to prevent lead pollution.

Sydney’s 1993 bid for the 2000 Games bore a strong environmental imprint. According to the Sydney post-Games report, the people behind Sydney’s bid realized “a strong commitment to environmentalism would give them a unique edge in the [bidding] process.” The centerpiece of Sydney’s proposal was the remediation of a large tract of industrial wasteland. The plan, which Greenpeace Australia helped prepare, also called for energy and water conservation, waste reduction, and protection of the rare green and golden bell frog, among other things.

What gave Sydney’s bid a unique edge in 1993, however, soon became a new standard for all host cities after the IOC amended its charter in 1996 to make environment the third pillar of the Olympic Movement, along with sport and culture. Since then, prospective host cities have been obliged to include extensive environmental commitments in their bids if they hope to win.

Beijing’s bid for the 2008 Games, for example, included 20 projects focused on addressing environmental problems. Osaka proposed to turn its Olympic site into a model “eco-city.” Toronto promised to increase green space and revitalize the city’s waterfront with sustainable infrastructure.

According to the IOC, Beijing, Paris, Osaka, and Toronto all had good environmental proposals, although the Committee expressed some concern about Beijing’s pollution. Despite this concern, Beijing defeated runner-up Toronto in July 2001 and soon began to implement its ambitious plans.

Greening Beijing

For the 2008 Olympics, the bulk of the environmental focus is on Beijing, even though six other Chinese cities will also hold events. Beijing made pledges to improve the environment in five main areas: air, water, solid waste, forestation, and conservation, both natural and cultural. It also made commitments about the sustainability of the venues.

Beijing’s air quality has attracted the greatest attention due to its visibility and immediate effect on the athletes’ performances. In August, for example, IOC President Rogge suggested endurance events like cycling might have to be postponed if air quality is poor.

High particulate counts from hydrocarbon combustion are Beijing’s biggest air problem. Average annual levels of PM10 – particulates small enough to be deeply inhaled – have stayed around 0.160 mg/m3 since 2000, with some slight improvement between 2003 and 2005. The city originally pledged to raise Beijing’s air quality to World Health Organization (WHO) standards during the Games, but later set Chinese Level II, or “good” air quality, as the goal. The Level II limit for PM10 is 0.100 mg/m3 – five times higher than the WHO standard.

In a much ballyhooed four-day exercise in August, Beijing restricted car and truck traffic to test the improvement on air pollution. About one-third of the city’s three million vehicles were idle each day. Air quality for the first three days of the test met national standards, but figures for the last day are suspiciously missing – undoubtedly because the particulate level was too high. Beijing’s topography makes air diffusion difficult, so reducing vehicle exhaust is not necessarily enough to clear the air.

According to Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Beijing has focused on vehicles, the power sector, and polluting factories as ways to improve air quality. “Beijing doesn’t want to be known as the smog Olympics,” she says.

To avoid that embarrassing label, Beijing already has started changing its power generation mix. According to BOCOG, about 27 million tons of coal were burned in Beijing in 2000. By 2005, Beijing had switched from coal to natural gas in most of the urban center, and other sections of the city switched to “cleaner” types of coal.

Beijing also relocated about 200 polluting factories to other provinces. In at least some cases – though not all – the factories are expected to use less polluting technology in their new locations. According to Zou Ji, deputy dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment at Renmin University, factory relocation was inevitable due to real estate development, but the Olympics speeded up the process.

With power plant and factory pollution now significantly diminished, transportation is the city’s biggest source of pollution and the focus of its air quality program. But reducing auto emissions won’t be easy; according to Turner, about 1,000 new vehicles are added daily to Beijing’s roads.

Gong Huiming, transportation specialist at the China Sustainable Energy Program in Beijing, says the city has put in place tougher new car emission standards than other Chinese cities, with the EU’s current “Euro IV” standard to be implemented in 2008. He says Beijing is also trying out hydrogen fuel cell buses, hybrid buses, and electric vehicles. Gong says Beijing is experimenting with bus rapid transit – using dedicated bus lanes and more comfortable buses – for at least one route.

At the same time, Beijing is building several new light rail and subway lines, with a goal of completing 95 miles of track by 2008, and is planning to buy 2,500 diesel buses that burn cleaner fuel next year. The US EPA is helping Beijing retrofit its municipal vehicles to use cleaner fuel – with about one-fifth already modified.

Air pollution is not the only focus of the Olympic cleanup campaign. Water contamination is another major problem. Many rivers are polluted, and the city is struggling with water scarcity. According to the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB), only about half the total length of monitored waterways met water quality standards in 2006.

As part of its Olympic plan, Beijing pledged to treat 90 percent of urban sewage by 2008 and directly reuse 50 percent of treated water for industrial or residential grey water applications. Beijing has already built about 15 new water treatment plants.

Beijing also promised to increase landscaping and green space in the city, as well as improve forest cover in the mountains. In addition, Beijing made numerous pledges regarding industrial waste, household recycling, energy conservation, alternative energy, and environmental capacity building.

“The Olympic Games are absolutely a good thing,” Gong says. “I feel that they have speeded up the development of environmental protection, not only in Beijing, but in the whole country.”

Promises, Promises

The question, of course, is whether Beijing will fulfill its commitments. Its air is cleaner than before, with “blue sky” days – those with a pollution index of “good” or “excellent” – increasing from 185 in 2001 to 241 in 2006. Still, problems remain.

Feng Yongfeng, an environmental journalist and activist, doubts some of Beijing’s claims of progress. Based on independent water monitoring expeditions Feng organizes along Beijing’s waterways, he estimates about 70 percent of Beijing’s water is now treated – in contrast with the city’s figure of 95 percent.

Feng also says Beijing has no effective recycling program, despite a city goal to separate 50 percent of waste. According to Feng, five or six residential areas recycled trash in 1996, but residents lost interest after municipal garbage handlers put separated garbage back together. He says Beijing’s recycling system now relies on about 140,000 self-employed migrant garbage pickers who sell recyclable trash.

Beijing’s new abundance of carpet-like grass fit for a US golf course also bothers Feng. He acknowledges Beijing has achieved its landscaping goals, but says the new grass wastes a lot of water. He says local grass varieties – suitable to Beijing’s dry climate – should have been planted.

Beijing also promised Olympic venues would emphasize sustainable development by using energy- and resource-efficient designs, using temporary facilities where possible, and planning for good post-Olympic use of the buildings. Out of 31 Olympic venues in Beijing, six are temporary, 12 were built just for the Games, and 13 are existing facilities that have been renovated.

John Pauline is director of Australia’s PTW Architects, which designed the “Water Cube” swimming stadium and Athletes’ Village. PTW also reviews all Olympic venue designs for Beijing 2008. Pauline says the Olympic facilities are environmentally “satisfactory,” but original environmental goals for the venues are “slipping through the hoops.”

“I think some of the venues had very high environmental aspirations at the beginning, but I don’t think that many of them have reached their early targets and I don’t think that there’s been any massive incentive to reach those targets,” he says.

Pauline says the Athletes’ Village was originally designed to incorporate solar panels, wind, and water, “but the reality is that the Athletes’ Village is going to be not dissimilar to lots of residential construction projects around Beijing and around China.”

Some of the venues incorporate high-tech environmental features, however. Pauline says the Water Cube uses a thin Teflon film to form the skin of the building. The material creates a greenhouse effect – lowering heating and cooling costs. The material isn’t biodegradable, but can be endlessly recycled, he says. The building’s highly efficient design also means the building uses only the exact amount of material it needs for structural safety, thus avoiding waste. The “Bird’s Nest” – nicknamed for its 40,000 tons of artfully latticed steel – will use advanced green technology, including rainwater recycling and drinking water purification systems.

These and other innovative building techniques will make the Beijing Olympics a showcase for various environmental technologies. But the impact of these innovations will be overshadowed by rapid development going on elsewhere in Beijing, says Pauline, who wants the same environmental expectations applied to all construction in the city.

“[Making Olympic venues sustainable] is sort of a Pyrrhic victory, because you might get it right for the Games, but every other building around Beijing may not be trying that hard to achieve the same level of control,” he says.

After the Olympic Flame

Even “getting it right for the Games” might be a problem, though, according to Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She says the Beijing EPB originally planned a regional factory slowdown to accompany Beijing’s traffic reduction experiment in August, but factory officials balked at the plan for economic reasons.

With air quality figures for the last day of the August traffic experiment mysteriously missing, it’s obvious that taking a million cars off Beijing’s roads is not enough to clear the air. Yet government officials in Beijing now sound much less urgent about controlling air pollution for the Games than before, according to Economy.

“There must be an enormous amount of political pressure being brought to bear not to close down Northeast China to make the Olympics work,” she says.

That means Beijing’s environmental authorities are probably wielding less influence than before.

Whether Beijing gets it environmentally right for a few weeks next August is really not the most important question, though – except, perhaps, to the athletes. What matters is whether Beijing’s attempt to stage a green Olympics is part of a larger environmental trend – in Beijing and in China – that will outlast the Games.

According to Economy, Premier Wen Jiabao has shown a “fairly strong commitment” to the environment and is the leader most likely to enforce environmental laws. She credits Wen with enhancing the clout of the State Environmental Protection Agency.

But good policy is only part of what China needs. Song Xinzhou, founder of the Greener Beijing Institute, a small environmental NGO, says China doesn’t lack environmental laws, but law enforcement in China – especially environmental law – is “very poor.” Song says no one tries to enforce rules, even when they involve other government entities. He says this sometimes comes from an idea that enforcement infringes on legitimate property rights – an ironic situation in an officially Communist country.

Song also blames environmental failure on poor management: “The government is laughable, because as soon as there is a problem, the government creates very strong policies, but doesn’t grasp that [a problem like the recent algae bloom in Lake Tai] is an integrated problem in the environment.”

China’s environmental problems are inevitably linked to the booming economy, which means solutions often come down to a choice between growth and the environment.

Economy says new environmental policies under consideration include prohibiting loans to repeat polluters and linking government promotions to environmental achievement. But she says when environmental and economic goals come into direct conflict, economic growth will take priority.

In the end, Western hopes that the Olympics will strengthen Chinese environmentalism reveal as much about the West as they do about China. With China becoming factory to the world, the West, especially the US, seems to be crossing its fingers that China will become an environmental paragon – thus lessening the developed countries’ responsibility to reduce their own carbon emissions and other pollution.

It appears unlikely, however, that China will fulfill the West’s environmental fantasies. China is already hiding behind the less-than-green skirts of the US – which resists signing the Kyoto Protocol – by refusing to set a quantitative limit on greenhouse gas emissions, emphasizing that per capita rates in China are only about one-third of rates in the US, Europe, and Japan.

China’s attempt to stage a green Olympics is still a good sign, though – even if being sustainable was a requirement for holding the Games more than it was a free choice. Beijing’s efforts show that China is susceptible to ecological peer pressure. Taking this lesson, the international community needs to provide more environmental leadership, technology, and training to China – as well as find new political pressure points it can use after the Olympics – rather than just hope the Games will miraculously transform the country.

In the meantime, China may become greener simply out of self-interest. As journalist and environmentalist Feng says: “Environmental protection shouldn’t be something we do to show Europeans or Americans. It is something Chinese should do for themselves.” Z

Kathryn Minnick lived and worked in Beijing for 11 years. She is now a
freelance writer in Wisconsin.

Christina Lum /


Beijing’s standard for “good air” falls far below international standards.

REUTERS/Claro Cortes


The main Olympic stadium uses cutting-edge green technologies, but athletes still may end up choking on the city’s smog.

REUTERS/David Gray


Email this article to a friend.

Write to the editor about this article.

Comments are closed for this post


Four issues for just
$15 a year.

cover thumbnail EIJ

Join Now!