Eleven days to clean air? Olympic host says yes.

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

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

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

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.

“Given the geographical location of Beijing and so on, it is rather difficult to improve air quality and cut emissions,” he added.

International Olympic officials have said that Beijing’s air quality is one of their major concerns. IOC president Jacques Rogge warned last year that some endurance events, such as the marathon and road bicycle races might have to be postponed if the air quality is not satisfactory on race day.

Earlier this year, Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of the IOC medical commission, told reporters that he feared athletes “may not perform at the best level” in polluted conditions. “We may not see much of world records” he said.

Competitors have begun to arrive in Beijing, with large numbers more expected this week. The Athletes Village, where many will be housed, had its opening ceremony Sunday.

Some Olympic teams, including the US one, are being issued face masks to protect them during training and daily life while in China. Du scoffed at such plans, saying athletes’ masks “would only end up an extra item in their luggage, and make their luggage heavier.”

Questionable data
Chinese officials’ insistence that Beijing’s air quality has been improving steadily since the city declared war on pollution in 1998 belies the facts and has contributed to the problem, according to Mr. Andrews.

“These positive messages take away from the message of enforcement,” he says. “Because they say it’s getting better, they lack the incentive to take the steps they really need to.”

The improving figures do not reflect reality, says Andrews, who has scrutinized official air quality statistics and finds them wanting.

In 2000, he points out, the government relaxed the standard for permissible levels of nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere, which instantly improved the statistical quality of the air but did not reduce actual levels of the pollutant.

At the same time, the authorities stopped public reporting of ozone levels (popularly known as smog). In many countries, high ozone levels are reported and regularly used to alert citizens of a public health hazard. But in China, no ozone reports means, “it can be a ‘blue sky day’ in official terminology, but it can be awful outside,” Andrews says.

In 2006, the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau removed two monitoring stations in high-traffic zones from the sample from which it derives a city-wide average, and replaced them in 2008 with three stations outside the city limits, according to Andrews’ study.

Further doubt over official figures was cast by a paper published this year in the scientific journal Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health by a group of researchers at the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences.

Testing Beijing’s air during the “Olympic period” last year, from August 7 to September 30, the researchers found that although sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide levels met Chinese standards, they were as much as 33 percent higher than the officially reported figures.

They found that particulate levels were 50 percent higher than officially reported, and that ozone levels were above the Chinese standard (which is twice as high as the WHO standard) on more than half the days measured.

If pollution does not ease in the next week, officials are reportedly considering even harsher restrictions on vehicle use in Beijing. In the end, however, air quality during the Games will depend greatly on the weather. “All they can do,” says one official with the organizing committee “is to pray for wind and rain.”

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