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Eleven days to clean air? Olympic host says yes.

Chinese officials say recent antipollution rules are helping. Critics question their data.

By Staff writer / July 27, 2008

Beijing: Idyllic posters around the city show some blue sky, as officials rush to improve air quality ahead of the Olympics.

Oded Balilty/AP



As in the past four days, a heavy haze hung over Beijing Sunday, cutting visibility to a quarter mile.

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Eleven days before the Games open, pollution levels exceeding China’s official standards are continuing to cause Olympic organizers concern. With Beijing’s air quality expected to be a key element in the Games’ success, time is running short.

Conditions are “not good,” the deputy head of Beijing’s Environmental Protection Bureau, Du Shaozhong, said Friday. To ensure progress “we will have to keep taking the measures that have been put into place.” Weather factors in, too, he added.

Tough steps implemented since June are bearing fruit, and “we are confident of fulfilling the commitments we have made to the international community,” the deputy head of Beijing’s municipal government, Li Wei, told reporters Friday.

Doubts persist, however. “The reality is that the air is still awful,” says Steven Andrews, an environmental consultant who has studied Beijing’s pollution statistics over several years. The official records include “manipulated data” to show progress, he charges.

For the past four days, according to figures from the national environmental protection bureau, the capital’s air pollution index (API) has been above the ceiling of 100 that China sets as acceptable.

Still, officials prefer to point to what they say are improvements. So far this month, Mr. Du said, the API has been 20 percent lower than it was in July 2007. He attributed this to a 25 percent reduction in the number of cars on Beijing’s congested main roads since July 20, among other factors.

Shutting down the smokestacks ...
The authorities have decreed a wide range of measures that have taken effect this month. Cars are allowed on the roads on alternate days only, depending on the last digit of their license plates; heavily polluting trucks have been banned from the city unless they are carrying fresh produce, and 70 percent of official cars have been garaged.

Two million vehicles have thus been taken off Beijing’s streets at peak hours, according to Du.

At the same time, three new metro lines have opened recently, and 2,000 buses been added to the municipal fleet. Some 3.9 million more passengers used public transport last Monday, the first working day of traffic restrictions, than a week earlier, Mr. Li said.

In Beijing and in four neighboring provinces, hundreds of factories have been ordered to close or cut back production until the end of the Paralympics on September 20th, to reduce the amount of wind-borne pollutants in the capital’s air.

... but pollutants still fill the air
Though the immediate impact was encouraging earlier last week, more recent API reports show that pollutants, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and breathable particulate matter are currently higher than the World Health Organization standards that Beijing pledged to respect in its bid for the Olympic Games.

Du blamed the weather, pointing out that “in the last few days there have not been significant rainfall or winds. The weather conditions in the last few days were not conducive to the diffusion of airborne pollutants.