Beijing: With only seven days to go for the Olympic Games, the host city on Friday breathed in some much welcome fresh air, after several days of smoggy, overcast skies.
Decked up: A Beijing Olympics logo at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
In the lead up to the Olympics, the focus on what is proving to be Beijing’s extremely difficult-to-combat pollution is intense, turning the condition of the skies into somewhat of a national obsession. Everywhere, from taxi drivers to bicycle repairmen the conversation in Beijing these days is peppered with phrases like “blue-sky days” and “suspended particulate matter.”
In February this year, marathon world-record holder Haile Gebrselassie pulled out of running the Beijing marathon citing concerns about the air quality. Even the usually diplomatic International Olympic Committee has warned that some Olympics events might have to be rescheduled at the last moment depending on pollution levels.
Beijing has long been promising clean skies for the Games and since early July a variety of measures have been instituted to tackle the noxious air. On July 1, more than 3,00,000 highly-polluting vehicles were banned from the roads. Later on July 20, the city implemented an even-odd number plate rule under which motorists are limited to driving on either odd or even days, depending on the last number on their license plates.
The traffic restrictions have reportedly removed some 2 million vehicles from the streets. Moreover, many factories in Beijing and its outlying areas have been ordered to reduce production and the majority of construction sites have been shut down.
Nonetheless, the expected clear blue skies have failed to emerge and for four days in a row this week, Beijing’s air failed to meet China’s own national air quality standards. As a result, the authorities have now announced even more severe contingency plans, including forcing more cars off the road and further shuttering industry in Beijing and surrounding areas.
According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, in case of “extremely unfavourable weather conditions,” emergency restrictions would be put in place for the period of the Games.
The contingency regulations would include taking cars the last digit of whose license plate matches the last number of the date in question, off the roads. The even-odd license plate rule would then be extended to the city of Tianjin as well as many parts of neighbouring Hebei province. Finally, all construction work would be halted and 105 polluting factories in the capital would scale back production further, as would coal-fired power plants and small scale steel mills in neighbouring regions.
According to experts weighing the likely efficacy of the plans is difficult, since it is not clear what proportion of Beijing’s pollution in fact comes from its surrounding areas. Moreover, as the limited effect of the recent restrictions has shown, air quality is also subject to a complex interplay of pollution and weather. Wind and rain can offer much relief from smog.