Beijing's Olympic War on Smog

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Peter Parks / AFP / Getty

Delegates arrive at the meeting of the National People's Congress at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on March 10

With less than four months to go before the start of the Olympics, Beijing is nearing the home stretch in its efforts to clean up its air. On Monday environmental authorities announced the latest set of measures to ensure that athletes and spectators won't be subjected to the city's notorious pollution.

The government has ordered work stoppages at construction sites, chemical plants, cement manufacturers and mines by July 20. Beijing Eastern Petrochemical will suspend production until September. The city will also ban spray painting and crack down on printing, furniture production and motor vehicle repair outlets that don't meet city standards.

Two dozen polluting factories will be required to reduce emissions by 30%. The targeted companies include the Yanshan Petrochemical Co., the Number 27 Locomotive Factory, four power plants and several building material and glass production factories. Shougang Steel, which is scheduled to move to neighboring Hebei province by 2010, will be required to further cut pollution from its Beijing operations.

Environmental experts welcomed the new rules. "It is useful and helpful, but alone it is not sufficient," says Zhang Hongjun, an environmental lawyer and former official with China's State Environmental Protection Administration. He says that Beijing will have to ensure that the new restrictions are coupled with "meaningful enforcement," and that cleanup efforts include surrounding cities and provinces.

Du Shaozhong, deputy head of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, told reporters Monday that the region of Inner Mongolia, the neighboring city of Tianjin and nearby provinces of Hebei, Shanxi, and Shandong would strengthen air pollution controls as well, but he did not give specifics. Those measures will be key because research has shown that even if Beijing could eliminate all its homegrown emissions, pollution from the surrounding region could push the capital's air to dangerous levels. The capital is also expected to restrict the use of private vehicles during the Games.

Since being awarded the 2008 Summer Games seven years ago, Beijing has engaged in an aggressive effort to clean up its toxic haze, which is among the worst in the world. The city has spent nearly $17 billion on anti-pollution measures such as moving factories, adding subway lines, upgrading boilers and converting coal-heated homes to electric.

Thus far the results have been mixed. The difficulty is that Beijing has been trying to control pollution as its economy grows at more than 10% a year, workers flood in from other provinces and more than 1,000 cars are added to the road each day. Environmental officials say they have been able to cut emissions and steadily increase the number of "blue sky days," a target based on air pollution levels. But earlier this year an American environmental consultant accused the city of dropping air monitoring stations from highly polluted areas out of the calculations and adding numbers from new stations in cleaner areas. The consultant, Steven Andrews, also says that the city has had a disproportionate number of days falling just below the cutoff for a blue sky day, which suggests the numbers have been massaged.

Du has denied any allegations that environmental officials are cooking their numbers. He has called on journalists to tell the world what they see. Long-term residents of Beijing say that the city's air has indeed improved. But as Du announced the new measures a gray haze obscured the hills on Beijing's western edge, which is common.

While the unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang and protests during the Olympic torch relay in Europe and the U.S. have pushed Beijing's air pollution out of the headlines, it still remains as a potential source of embarrassment for the host nation. Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie, who has asthma, cited pollution in his decision not to run in the Beijing marathon, the event in which he holds the world record, although he will compete in other events. Likewise, tennis player Justine Henin, who won gold in Athens, says she may not play in Beijing.

The city has received some good news on air quality. The International Olympic Committee said in March that a study last summer showed pollution levels in Beijing that were better than expected. IOC president Jacques Rogge said last week that air quality should not be a problem for shorter events, though long-distance competitions such as mountain biking, cycling road races, the marathon and triathlon may need to be postponed based on pollution levels on the days of the events. Beijing is hoping the latest measures will make postponing events unnecessary.