With exactly one year to go, Beijing is pulling out all the stops for the 2008 Summer Olympics, a sporting event billed as China's coming-out party.
Organizers say the construction frenzy that is reshaping this ancient city is well on track for completion, as are preparations to host more than 10,000 international athletes and millions of spectators during the three-week event.
The opening gala is timed for maximum good fortune, according to Chinese folklore: 8:08 p.m. on 8/8/08. Volunteers are lining up to help China put on a show of national pride and worldly ambition.
But Beijing's choking air pollution and the vagaries of summer skies are threatening to spoil the party. In recent months, a thick haze of auto emissions, swirling dust, and factory smoke has shrouded the city's rising skyline. Official "blue skies" tallies – a somewhat liberal definition of air quality – are running behind target this year. June was the worst month on record in seven years, with 15 days classified as substandard.
Still, that noxious cloud may well be gone by next August, along with the crush of cars that clog the city's roads. Olympics teams have been reassured that China has contingency plans to clear the air and ensure a cobalt-blue backdrop when the TV cameras pan skyward. Among the possible measures are restrictions on private cars, factory closures, and a building ban during the runup to the games.
The inexorable rise in China's car culture, spurred by massive government and private investment in the auto industry, presents a challenge to any clean-air campaign, as well as to ambitious targets to improve energy efficiency by 20 percent within three years. Long after the Olympics crowds leave, many of Beijing's 15 million-plus residents will aspire to own a car.
But having promised to stage a "Green Olympics," Beijing has invested heavily in new subway lines and other mass transit projects that could yield long-term benefits, as well as river cleanups and tree plantings. China is now rethinking its urban transit policies, says Liang Benfan, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and an adviser on transport to the Beijing municipal government.
Officials from BOCOG, the Beijing organizing committee, say that, despite setbacks, these efforts are paying off: The number of "blue skies" days rose from 100 in 1998 to 241 in 2006.
"Good air quality and blue skies in Beijing are not only important for the opening ceremony, but also for the health of the athletes, the spectators, and the people of the city," Executive Vice-President Wang Wei told a press conference Monday in an upbeat assessment of Beijing's preparedness.
Last year, Beijing ordered a half-million cars off the streets during a six-day summit held with African heads of states. Seen as a dry run for an Olympics shutdown, it cut auto emissions by 40 percent and yielded blue skies and traffic-free streets.
Still, says Gilbert Van Kerckhove, a consultant to BOCOG, "I see very little progress [on air pollution]. The situation is very ugly." But, he adds, "during the Olympics, no problem. They'll stop everything for three months, the sky will clear up, and there will be no pollution."
While predictions of clear skies may seem at odds with reality, Beijing and other cities are beginning to turn the corner on air pollution, argues David Dollar, country director of the World Bank, which is funding a slew of environmental projects in China. Sulfur emissions, which used to darken the air during much of the year, have fallen sharply over the past decade as urban households have switched from coal to gas for heating and cooking.
At the same time, though, auto emissions have climbed as more Chinese take to the roads. Beijing has 3 million registered cars, a number expected to reach 3.3 million by next August.
Mr. Dollar says that surveys indicate that urban residents are increasingly willing to bear the cost of tackling pollution amid rising concern over its impact. A joint study by the World Bank and China's Environmental Protection Agency recently estimated that the health costs associated with air pollution were equivalent to 3.8 percent of China's GDP, or $76 billion.
"The Olympics is a one-time event, and it's important. But air and water issues are much bigger than the Olympics," he says.
Some of Beijing's summer smog is seasonal, say experts, stoked by southerly winds and tamped down by fog. Emissions from nearby provinces with heavy industry and coal mines add to the problem. The Olympics construction boom, which should wind down by the end of the year, is also adding dust and grit to the mix. Nearly 10,000 construction sites dot the city, according to state media.
Still, the drive by Beijing's urban planners to promote mass transit over private vehicles is yielding some success, claims Mr. Liang.
One example is a fleet of new buses run on cleaner fuel that cut through traffic along dedicated lanes. Adding fast buses should encourage commuters to leave their cars at home, particularly when the cost of driving is on the rise because of higher gas prices and parking charges. "I don't drive much now. I take the bus. It's cheaper," he says.
Then there's the electric bicycle, a zippier version of the sturdy two-wheeler that once defined mobility in China. "If families go by electric bike, they can travel fast, and they won't buy a car," says Liang.