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An Olympic Smokescreen: Why We Need to Get Over Air Pollution at Beijing's Games

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There's been a lot of discussion in the media recently about whether Beijing will be able to fix its air pollution problem before the Olympics start on August 8. Serious air pollution, like the kind we've had in Beijing this week, would make China look bad in front of an audience of two billion, and might turn events like the marathon into a coughing competition.

And yet I think the Beijing officials who promise to clean up for the Games -- and the foreign media who are anticipating a trip-up -- are talking less about reality than about a spectacle, a show even bigger than the opening ceremony. The issue of air quality during Beijing's "green" Olympics isn't really such a big deal. It's a red herring. A smokescreen.

My best guess is that the Beijing skies will be mostly beautiful during the Olympics and the Paralympics. That's because the government is performing the world's biggest environmental magic trick: it will shut down factories for hundreds of miles, keep cars off the roads and halt construction. Los Angeles used similar measures to beat the smog during its Olympics in 1984. And while LA's challenge wasn't as huge as Beijing's, neither was its effort. The Chinese capital has built a forest twice the size of Central Park north of the stadiums to provide oxygen, and will aim rain guns at the clouds to clear pollution and keep rain away. Chinese scientists have even bred a special type of chrysanthemum that will be able to grow in the August humidity.

But even clear blue skies and traffic-free streets won't necessarily be good for China. On an image level, such cleanliness may only smack of Potemkin-village fakery and serve to highlight the government's authoritarian -- and patchwork -- system of control. Looks bad. Of course, the disappearing act could fool at least some of the world into thinking that Beijing's got a handle on its air pollution problem. But that's no good either, because it's not true. Perhaps a successful temporary fix could energize public opinion about urban pollution and demonstrate that the government can improve the environment if it has the will. Problem is that the will doesn't exist, not like that: after the closing ceremonies, the factories will resume their emissions, the cars will again take to the roads, and millions will again be breathing a noxious soup.

Now if during the Games, the air is bad, most sympathy will be directed toward the athletes: Yes, the athletes will suffer, along will their performance, even if they're wearing masks most of the time. The average endurance athlete inhales up to 150 liters of air a minute, which is more than ten times that of an office worker. But worrying so much about the athletes and their records -- or about the pride of the IOC -- seems misplaced, given that the air also effects millions of Beijing's citizens, to say nothing of the rest of China's huge population. (It is estimated that 656,000 Chinese die each year due to air pollution.)

If the air is nasty, Beijing will also lose face, and perhaps face increased pressure to clean up. But considering all the coverage surrounding its environmental problems, and its smoggy skies just one month from the opening ceremonies, its environmental image probably can't get much worse. While pressures will remain on China to clean up, the pressure brought by the Olympics -- an event unparalleled in China's public relations history -- will quickly fade.

And dare I say it, but toxic skies during the Olympics will probably even excite some foreign reporters who are eager for apocalyptic images to send readers and viewers back home. Of course, it's not likely that anyone the least bit familiar with China will be terribly surprised by such images. Such stories seem more likely to sow frustration and pessimism rather than promote a productive and crucial dialogue on China's pollution. This is, after all, pollution that drifts across to North America.

Ultimately, Beijing will get to show the world what it wants to show it, and the world will see what it wants to see. But however the skies over Beijing look to the world during the Games is less important than what they look like to citizens afterwards.

In fact, what the sky looks like is less important than what's actually in it. And it's hard to know what's in it. The city's "blue sky" pollution index is highly flawed: it offers only average pollution readings across the city, using many monitoring stations that have been moved outside the polluted city center. Ozone, which effects the lungs, is especially hard to detect because it is colorless and can be abundant even on beautiful days. The city does not release ozone figures.

The city has a serious particulate matter, or PM10 problem, with levels six times that of the World Health Organization's standard. A major source of particulate matter, as well as carbon monoxide and CO2, are the cars that will take to the roads in record numbers after the Games. Beijing adds around 1200 new vehicles per day.

In a New York Times article in January, Jim Yardley nicely summed up the situation in Beijing, where environmental policies vie against new cars and incessant construction: "Beijing is like an athlete trying to get into shape by walking on a treadmill yet eating double cheeseburgers at the same time."

One promising step forward is the recent rise in gas prices. Increased public transportation, like the line 10 subway meant to open this month, will also help wean the city away from car-centric development and hopefully reduce emissions.

Green initiatives well underway, like tree planting and raising automobile emissions are also promising because they won't die with the Olympics. And yet, as I've heard from some campaigners, the government did not seize upon the "green" Olympics as a platform for the kind of environmental change for which they had hoped. Water, for instance, is a serious problem in Beijing -- the city has less water per person than Israel -- and has not been seriously addressed during the Olympic preparations. In fact, the rowing park alone will be using 1.7 billion cubic meters of Beijing's drinking water. And water is just one of many issues that threaten to get lost in the air pollution spectacle.

As long as the government's and the media's attentions are fixed on the larger problem, and not just on what happens only during a two week period in August, then Beijing might be able to truly lay claim to a "green" Olympics.

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