Face mask, canned oxygen and feather duster. These are some of the items Beijing residents will find handy when the next sandstorm strikes the capital, according to a recent light-hearted article in a Beijing magazine.
The week-long sandstorm in mid-March was the capital's worst for a decade. The attack brought an estimated 26,000 tonnes of sand and dust into the city, turning the sky an apocalyptic yellow. Everywhere was covered with choking particles, which made it difficult to work and even breathe outdoors.
Unfortunately, most locals believe there is more severe weather to come. Already this year, Beijing has had snowstorms and heat-waves of a severity not seen for years. On January 4, the temperature shot up to 15.4?C, the warmest in living memory for the time of year, according to local media. On July 14, Beijing recorded a record high of 41.2?C, and 60?C on the surface of some roads. "This is the worst summer in my five years in Beijing," says a Western diplomat.
Critics blame the bizarre weather on environmentally unfriendly human activities – too many cars, too few trees, too much burning of coal and too many industrial pollutants. They say the government was too preoccupied with economic growth to think about pollution until the capital had become one of the world's most polluted cities. On many days of the year, a hazy smog hangs over it and the air is still and dusty.
Without the Olympic Games, Beijing might have taken a less aggressive attitude to solving the problem. Now, however, it is tackling it with hardline policies and a strategy of mass mobilisation.
In January 1999, the city implemented Euro I emission standards for auto exhausts, which were introduced in Europe seven years earlier. Almost overnight, the capital's polluting taxis were replaced with new, environmentally friendly ones. In August this year, it raised the standard to level two, requiring automobiles to emit even smaller amounts of sulphur, benzene, olefins and other chemicals.
These measures should go a long way towards cleaning up Beijing's air quality: it has been found that 60 per cent of the city's airborne nitrogen dioxide and 70 per cent of its hydrocarbons come from automobile emissions. "The winters are definitely better. My face is no longer covered by coal dust as it used to be, even if I stay outdoors for a long time," says one resident.
Beijing has also targeted another major source of pollution – Capital Iron and Steel Corporation. Once a symbol of Beijing's industrial prowess, the factory has been asked to cut back its production, from 8m tonnes to 6m tonnes of steel this year. In future, the 200,000-worker plant will switch from polluting steel-making to the production of nonpolluting semiconductors and robots.
Beijing's US$4.5bn environmental protection programme also includes a plan to establish a 240 sq km buffer zone of trees and lawns to separate the city centre from fringe areas and satellite towns. This will make the densely populated central area better 'ventilated', with heat dissipating more quickly. The authorities also plan to make buses switch from diesel to natural gas and to relocate 110 polluting factories inside the fourth ring road to sites outside the city.
All these efforts are starting to pay off, according to Zhang Chongxian, a senior programme director of Beijing JP Ruihua Environ Tech Company and a former official of the city's environmental bureau. "In meteorological terms, Beijing's sky has been classified as clear for about half of the year. By 2008, we will have a clear sky almost every day," he says confidently.
Sandstorms, however, will still occur, as the central problem has yet to be solved. The storms originate from arid areas and deserts of northwestern provinces such as Gansu, Ningxia and Shaanxi, where decades of overgrazing, deforestation and depletion of water resources have taken their toll on the environment. The broken earth will take many years to turn good, and it will not be soon enough for the 2008 Olympic Games.