On chemical industry road in east Beijing, you can find saunas, outlet malls, hardware stores, karaoke parlors, tire-repair shops, horse-drawn carts piled high with persimmons and a hot-pot restaurant that specializes in dog meat.
One thing that's getting tougher to find on Chemical Industry Road these days, though, is the chemical industry. Two years ago, the 48-year-old Beijing Coking and Chemical Works closed up shop to move to neighboring Hebei province, part of a multibillion-dollar effort to clean up Beijing's air before the 2008 Summer Olympics. To its neighbors, closing the factory was a huge improvement. Before, "it was really extreme," says Zhang Qi, a former steelworker who lives near the shuttered plant. "The air, one breath of it would start you coughing. And the sky was wrapped in black smoke." Now, he says, the air "is so, so much better."
That doesn't mean it's good, though. Pollution in the Chinese capital still regularly hits levels two or three times what the World Health Organization considers safe, and on Dec. 28, the city's air-pollution index hit the worst-possible score of 500. With less than a year before the Games, Beijing, which made environmental protection a key part of its successful Olympic bid, is in the final stages of a pitched effort to clean up its air.
Beijing is not alone. Across the planet, legendary brown-cloud metropolises, such as Mexico City, Los Angeles and New Delhi, have been grappling with the issue with varying degrees of success. For any megacity wishing to remain economically competitive, healthy air quality is a must. The critical issue: how to clean the atmosphere without choking off growth, and nowhere is that challenge bigger than in China.
Beijing has made modest progress in making its air less visible. From 2000 to '06, concentrations of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide have all dropped, while the annual number of days that Beijing has met national air-quality standards has gone up, from 177 to 243. In 2007, Beijing had 246 "blue sky" days (low or moderate pollution, as defined by the government), but that's no guarantee that these Olympics won't be remembered as the Smog Games. "Beijing has done a lot of work, and our air quality has gone up year on year," Yu Xiaoxuan, an environmental official with the Beijing Olympic committee, told a press conference in September. "But for the Olympics and for the health of the public, there's still a gap. Compared with developed countries in Europe or North America, we're still not sufficient."
Beijing's gains have come as part of a vast and expensive cleanup program. Nearly 60,000 pollution-spewing coal-fired boilers were switched to cleaner energy sources like natural gas. The city has shut down dozens of cement kilns, lime plants, brick-production lines and gravel pits that clog the air with particulates. In addition to Beijing Coking and Chemical Works, nearly 200 factories were moved out of the capital from 2000 to '06. The coke plant consumed 5% of the coal burned in Beijing. (Coke, used in manufacturing steel, is made by cooking coal.) By moving the plant, the capital reduced emissions of sulfur dioxide by 3 million tons, or about 15%. The Shougang Group, the country's fourth largest steel producer, will reduce its output by half and then move to neighboring Hebei province by 2010. "The emissions from Shougang, they're not only from the stacks, but from the movement of raw materials through the city," says Hao Jiming, an environmental-science professor at Beijing's Tsinghua University. "That's why it's always been important to get Shougang to move out of the city." The steel producer's move could cut Beijing's coal consumption 12%, Hao estimates.
While pollution is a ticket out of town for some businesses, for others it is a welcoming opportunity. General Electric secured $300 million in contracts related to Beijing's green push, including work at Olympic venues. Among them is a rainwater-recycling system for the National Stadium and solar-powered lighting for the softball fields. The company is also helping Beijing reduce its dependence on coal. GE supplied two gas-turbine generators at a local power plant and wind turbines for a project in Hebei that supplies power to the capital.
GE's deals are signs that Beijing is serious about its environment, says Jennifer Turner, director of the Washington-based China Environment Forum. But she worries that neighboring provinces don't have the same drive. "I don't think they'll be able to do the environmental-authoritarianism thing," she says. "Factories are saying 'Not now. Hell no. We won't shut down for two weeks.'" That could be a problem even if the factories are hundreds of miles away. A study by U.S. and Chinese scientists found that even if Beijing reduced its emissions to zero, it could still face unhealthy levels of ozone and airborne particles during the Games.
Beijing's car craziness, symbolic of China's growth, makes things even tougher to manage. Vehicular pollutants now make up about 60% of the city's emissions, says Zhang Hongjun, a former senior official with China's State Environmental Protection Administration. The city has 3 million cars, a number that grows by about 1,000 each day. No wonder there are midnight traffic jams. In August, Beijing held a trial that kept 1.3 million vehicles off the roads for a four-day stretch. Traffic improved vastly; not so the air, with pollutants cut only 15%-20%, half of what had been anticipated--a shortfall attributed to calm winds that failed to push pollution out of the city.
A partial ban on vehicles is likely during the Olympics, but there are no plans to reduce cars over the long term. Such an effort wouldn't fly with the growing number of car buyers. "Some people have suggested a ceiling for Beijing's vehicle population," Hao says. "But people would say, 'Why can government officers have a car but I can't?'" And China has promoted auto production as an engine for GDP growth, employment and tax revenue, Zhang says, all of which make for an unbeatable argument for continued unfettered sales. "The agencies and officials promoting the car industry are much stronger than those pushing for controls," he says.
Oddly, official Beijing hasn't used its authority to improve public transportation, an obvious solution to both cars and pollution. Since the city opened its first subway in 1969, growth has been slow--until the Olympics made subway-building a top priority. A new north-south line was opened in early October, and three more will be finished this summer, nearly doubling the total mileage of track.