Jörn-Carsten GOTTWALD

China faces serious pollution problems, but its position as host of the 2008 Olympics has provided a strong impetus for ecological reform while simultaneously creating opportunities for critics who say that the country is not doing enough, or doing it fast enough.

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 (not, incidentally, a criticism unique to China; the same anxiety had been expressed about the previous host city, Athens, and others as well).

But for China, declaring that the Beijing Olympic Games would be green was more than a public relations move. It was widely known to address 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. All but four of the world’s most air–polluted cities are in China, and 75 percent of the surface water in China’s cities is not fit for drinking. China’s polluted water contributes to certain cancers; the nation has the world’s highest rate of liver cancer.

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 are clearly second to the overall goal of high-speed economic growth.

Conceiving 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 subsequently mandated that all summer Olympic Games be green Olympics. In 2005, the United Nations Environment Programme and the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games agreed to try to make the summer Olympics of 2008 environmentally friendly. The Beijing Organizing Committee 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.

Implementing the Concept

From the athletes’ perspective, tackling air pollution in the Chinese capital was 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, the government sought 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 coal-burning power plants, and control the pollution of flying dust. However, implementing these measures takes time. Beijing still exceeds the limits set by the World Health Organization for air pollution in spite of the extension of public transport, the introduction of ecological standards for cars, and the introduction of low- and zero-emission buses for use at the Olympic Village and the Media Village.

Adequate sewage treatment is another daunting challenge. 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.

Beijing authorities have also promised to put into place a real-time pollution 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.

Long-term Improvement

When representatives of the International Olympic Committee 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. On the eve of the Olympics, at least some of the environmental goals have indeed been met. A city as huge as Beijing cannot be turned into an ecological showcase overnight, but authorities have managed to implement policies that do more than just apply short-term makeup, and their efforts indicate that China is likely to play an active role in international efforts to deal with global environmental problems in the years ahead.

Source: Gottwald, Jörn-Carsten. (2008). Green Olympics, green world. In Fan Hong, Duncan Mackay & Karen Christensen (Eds.), China Gold, China’s Quest for Global Power and Olympic Glory, pp. 120–121. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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