Step outside on any August day in Beijing and there’s a good chance the sky will not be clear blue but rather a brownish haze. The conditions are not exactly ideal for the Olympics, despite the fact that one of the foundations of China’s successful bid for the games was its pledge to host the first “Green Olympics.”
The 2001 vow came in two parts: a commitment to employ environment-friendly technologies in preparation for the games and investment in initiatives to raise environmental stewardship citywide.
By most accounts, the city has kept to its word. Solar energy-harnessing photovoltaic cells are a common feature in newly constructed arenas. Nearly 200 polluting factories have been relocated outside the city and, 94% of Beijing’s coal-burning boilers have been converted to run on cleaner energy sources.
In addition, measures to keep a proportion of vehicles off the roads are likely to be employed. A four-day trial conducted in August was said to have cut pollutant discharge by as much as 5,800 metric tons.
This year alone, the city will spend US$3.25 billion on pollution control and environmental clean-up efforts. In all, it has spent US$12 billion since winning the bid.
Local environmental authorities claimed that efforts were paying off after Beijing saw 25 days of pollution-free air in September, the highest number for a single month in seven years. However, a UN Environment Program report published in October said more improvements needed to be made. The report noted that in 2006 the average level of pollutants in Beijing’s air was still eight times higher than the World Health Organization’s minimum.
Indeed, Jacques Rogge, head of the International Olympic Committee, has threatened to reschedule some Olympic events if Beijing’s air quality doesn’t improve. Clean air for the games is obviously a top priority – without it athletes won’t be able to perform at the optimum level.
BOCOG, the games’ organizing committee, is taking concerns seriously by using its clout to demand heightened environmental commitments from its Olympic partners.
For example, Coca-Cola will provide climate-friendly coolers and vending machines at Olympic venues. These feature proprietary technology that will improve energy efficiency by 35% and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45,000 metric tons during the games – the equivalent of taking 218,000 cars off the roads for two weeks.
Many are still dubious. Some athletes have begun training with carbon-filtering “activated charcoal” facemasks, while others plan to pack ibuprofen in preparation for the anticipated pollution during the games. Several long-distance runners have already indicated that they will compete in fewer events due to the oppressive conditions.
BOCOG insists targets are regularly being met across the board, but time will tell if Beijing’s pledge for a green Olympics can be realized.