As the closing ceremony of the 2004 Olympics in Athens unfolded under the light of a full moon last August, officials passed the Olympic flag to Wang Qishan, the mayor of Beijing, beginning the official countdown to the 2008 Summer Games. China is well ahead of its construction schedule, but it is falling behind in efforts to solve a problem that could spoil the event: foul air. According to a World Bank report on environmental conditions in 21st-century China, a resident of Beijing is subjected to about seven times more particulates than a resident of Los Angeles and about eight times as much sulfur dioxide.
At times, toxic smog literally chokes the city. When Jacques Chirac, president of France, visited Beijing six weeks after the Athens Olympics, pollution limited visibility to 600 feet, forcing the cancellation of a celebratory air show by French pilots and prompting an official warning for residents of the city to spend the weekend indoors.
As part of a pre-Olympic cleanup, China this year adopted some of the toughest fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles anywhere and put pressure on refineries to produce higher-quality gasoline. But that may still be too little, too late. Since 1998, the number of cars in Beijing has doubled from 1 million to 2 million, and by 2008 the number is expected to surpass 3 million. Meanwhile, China obtains roughly three-quarters of its electricity from coal, meaning the air in Beijing and other cities is thick with sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide spewed from power plants and coal-burning stoves. Since China’s successful bid in 2001 to host the Olympics, some of Beijing’s polluting factories have been relocated, and officials have been pressuring others to switch to cleaner coal and natural gas.
Despite the enormity of the task, Chinese officials insist there will be blue skies in Beijing. “A centralized authority like China’s can implement things that would otherwise seem draconian,” says Chris Nielsen, executive director of the China Project at Harvard University. “They’ll just shut things down and ban traffic. They’ll take a big economic hit to make sure the air is clean for the Olympics.”