Jorn-Carsten GOTTWALD

How green are Beijing’s green Olympics? China faces serious pollution problems, but its position as host of the Olympics is providing a strong impetus for ecological reform.

One of the major obstacles to China’s winning the competition to host the 2008 Olympic Games was widespread fear among observers that people attending the games would suffer from the severe air pollution in China’s capital. Therefore, declaring that the Beijing Olympic Games will be green is much more than just a public relations move in an age of growing environmental awareness. It addresses one of the most serious problems China faces: trying to secure environmentally friendly, sustainable growth for the years to come. Whereas the 2000 games in Sydney, Australia, and the 2004 games in Athens, Greece, failed to deliver on their promises to stage green Olympics, the Chinese government has been making substantial progress in improving China’s dismal ecological record.

The State of the Environment in China

Reports about China’s environment have become increasingly alarming. The Institute of International Economics in Washington, DC, for example, notes that “only about 15 percent of China’s land is arable, and that amount is shrinking. Sixteen of the world’s twenty most air-polluted cities are in China. More than three-quarters of the surface water flowing through China’s urban areas is considered unsuitable for drinking or fishing, and 90 percent of urban groundwater is contaminated.”

Since the mid-1990s, Chinese leaders have increasingly addressed the health hazards resulting from air pollution, inadequate drinking water, desertification, and erosion. However, even where resources meet the political will to fight pollution, the implementation of environmental policies is often hampered by local interests that put short-term economic growth and income creation above long-term ecological objectives. Environmental protection and careful and efficient use of natural resources rank high among China’s policy goals, but clearly second to the overall goal of high-speed economic growth.

The Concept of a Green Olympics

Originally, the environmental organization Greenpeace drafted the concept of a green Olympics for the 2000 Olympic Summer Games in Sydney. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) subsequently mandated that all summer Olympic Games be green Olympics. In 2005, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) signed an agreement with the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad (BOCOG) “aimed at making the summer Olympics of 2008 environmentally-friendly.” The BOCOG promised to make environmental protection a priority, not only in the designing and construction of Olympic venues, but also through afforestation campaigns, beautification of urban and rural areas, increased public awareness, and promotion of green consumption. More specifically, the BOCOG has the following goals:

  • preventing coal-burning pollution
  • preventing air pollution by automobile emissions
  • preventing particle pollution in urban areas
  • preventing industrial pollution
  • protecting drinking water sources
  • preventing water pollution
  • tightening solid waste control
  • preventing noise, electromagnetic
  • radiation, and radioactivity pollution
  • promoting the application of environmentally
  • friendly technologies and techniques
  • building green ecological shelters for the capital
  • promoting urban afforestation and beautification
  • transforming desert areas and preventing soil erosion
  • using water resources rationally
  • enhancing ecological protection and construction in key areas
  • promoting ecological agriculture
  • improving urban environment;
  • improving ecological awareness of citizens

Less than one year ahead of the games, the Chinese capital has been transformed, but much less and quite differently from what one might expect from a green Olympics. Although the Chinese leadership has been setting ambitious goals to improve its ecological balance for several years, its record of meeting these goals so far has been disappointing: not a single goal that the government set for 2000–2005 was met.

Improving Air Quality

From the athletes’ perspective, tackling air pollution in the Chinese capital is one of the prime challenges. The image of runners in the marathon competing in clouds of smog has become a consistent nightmare of athletes, journalists, and bureaucrats alike. To prevent this nightmare from becoming a reality and to avoid having to depend on the good fortune of a windy summer breeze in the capital, the government seeks to improve the energy structure to reduce carbon soot, eliminate 15,000 taxis and 3,000 buses and replace them with 4,000 buses powered by natural gas, close major coke ovens, put desulphurization technology in place at Beijing’s coal-burning power plants, and control the pollution of flying dust.

However, implementing these measures takes time. At the time of this writing, the capital still exceeds the limits set by the World Health Organization for air pollution. Furthermore, not all the policies have brought the desired outcomes. For example, the partial closing and relocation of Capital Iron and Steel Corporation, one of Beijing’s main air polluters, were supposed to reduce Beijing’s air pollution significantly. Parts of the factory were moved 80 kilometers to neighboring Hebei Province, and authorities promised to improve the ecological standards at the new facilities. While originally the Beijing facilities were expected to stop their production, however, the company declared that it would only scale down output in the Beijing plant during the summer of 2008.

The extension of public transport and the introduction of ecological standards for cars were supposed to help China reach the World Health Organization’s standards for air pollution by 2008. Again, judging by recent reports, this goal seems to have been overly ambitious. However, organizers have introduced low- and zero-emission buses, among them 50 that are powered by lithium batteries, for use at the Olympic Village and the Media Village. For 2008 local authorities plan to implement a higher standard of emissions control for individual cars, equal to Europe Standard IV, a move that they hope will let them achieve the goal of having more than 245 days of high air quality in Beijing.

Improving Water Quality

China has made progress in improving the quality of water treatment and the water supply in the capital. Whereas the water supply for universities and other public institutions had to be shut off during a visit of representatives from the IOC in 1993, during Beijing’s first bid to host the Olympics, in 2008 treated water will fill the Olympic swimming pools.

Adequate sewage treatment is perhaps the most daunting challenge. Fourteen large-scale sewage treatment plants had been envisioned for the capital, nine of them already completed by 2007 and five more under construction. Water treatment plants were built along Beijing’s waterways, and settlements were even torn down in order to alleviate pollution threats to rivers and lakes. The need to recycle water has become more urgent because of successive years of drought in Beijing. Therefore, any improvement in sewage treatment is a welcome relief, even if the first steps are concentrating on the inner districts of the capital. And, in contrast to its disappointing record in implementing environmental policies before 2005, the government met its goal of treating 90 percent of Beijing’s water in 2006 and recycling half of the water by 2007.

Finally, Beijing authorities promised to put into place a real-time monitoring system in rivers and lakes. If this system leads to faster and more transparent reaction to serious spillages of poisonous liquids into the capital’s waterways, then changes made for the Beijing 2008 Olympics will have produced a lasting improvement.

Short-term Makeup or Long-term Improvement?

When representatives of the IOC visited Beijing in the 1990s, the local government resorted to the use of artificial color to “green” the yellow grass along the roads and squares to improve the city’s environmental credentials. One year ahead of the 2008 games, at least some of the environmental goals set for the Olympics have already been met. A city as huge as Beijing cannot be turned into an ecological showcase overnight, but authorities have managed to implement policies that reach further than just short-term makeup. Although no fundamental shift has occurred in China’s overall economic development policies, which still dominate all considerations of climate change, air pollution, and sustainable development, the preparations for the 2008 games clearly show the willingness and the capacity to improve China’s ecological record.

Source: Gottwald, Jorn-Carsten. (2007). Green Olympics. Guanxi: The China Letter, 15, 16.