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Beijing's Olympic Dream Faces New Threat From Smog

Beijing's Olympic Dream Faces New Threat From Smog

Thursday, 27 January, 2022 - 05:15

Beijing promoted its bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics seven years ago with a video showing skiers and snowboarders performing under crisp blue skies. Clean air was a bold promise, and one that the host city is struggling to fulfill.

Two weeks before the opening ceremonies, air pollution levels in and around Beijing routinely exceed World Health Organization standards, sometimes more than tenfold. On Monday, China's Ministry of Environment and Ecology announced emergency mitigation measures to be implemented in the event of heavy pollution during the games. Presumably they're being implemented now.

Organizers and athletes have viewed Covid-19, human rights protests and boycotts as the events most likely to disrupt the games. Air pollution, a problem that China successfully addressed during the Beijing 2008 summer games, has rarely been raised.

That was naive. Despite making progress combating air pollution over the last decade, China's pollution levels remain well above international standards. As a result, an Olympics designed to highlight China's bright future may instead remind the world of its hazy past.

China — and Beijing, in particular — has struggled for more than two decades to overcome perceptions that pollution made its environment unsuitable for outdoor sports.

Beijing's bid for the 2008 games was predicated on expansive and expensive promises to improve the urban environment. It definitely needed improving: A 2007 World Bank report prepared with contributions from China's environmental ministry estimated that 350,000 to 400,000 Chinese died annually due to outdoor air pollution. In advance of the Olympics, Beijing took decisive action. Among other measures, steel mills and other polluting enterprises were relocated from the city, stringent traffic controls were adopted and coal-burning boilers were converted to natural gas.

The effort worked, to a point. The average daily Air Pollution Index during the 2008 Olympic Games was 36% lower than the average over the previous eight years. The impact on human health and performance was equally dramatic, with one study showing improvements in cardiovascular health that paralleled the decline in air pollution. Nonetheless, mild pollution remained a visible, tangible feature of Beijing's landscape during the games, much to the consternation of Beijing and many athletes.

Worse, the improvement was temporary. By October 2009, 60% of the air-quality improvement was gone as factories and private automobiles returned to old patterns, spurred by China's massive stimulus following the financial crisis. Over the next five years, the situation progressively worsened. In 2014, the soccer superstar Lionel Messi was photographed at Beijing's Olympic stadium, bent over and struggling in dangerous levels of smog. A week later, the Beijing marathon featured thousands of runners in antipollution masks.

None of these incidents prevented Beijing from bidding for the 2022 Winter Olympics in 2013. Needless to say, it was a tough sell. Thanks in part to northern China's continued reliance on coal for heating, Beijing's air quality plummets during winter months. Nonetheless, Beijing only had to face off against Almaty, Kazakhstan, and well-grounded concerns about Kazakhstan’s economic and financial stability, for rights to the games. In 2015, the International Olympic Committee chose to accept Beijing's promise that it would meet China's national air quality standards, and awarded the city the games.

In one sense, it was a smart, informed choice. In 2014, Beijing, under intense political pressure, set aside over $100 billion to help meet pollution mitigation targets. Not long after that, Premier Li Keqiang declared that China would wage "war on pollution" by cutting outdated factories, limiting China's chronic overproduction and reforming energy pricing to boost renewables, among other initiatives. China's government was well-positioned to follow through on these promises, and it did. By 2018, the concentration of airborne small hazardous particles known as PM2.5 had declined 35% in Beijing. And last year, the annual average for PM2.5 declined to 33 micrograms per cubic meter, falling below the national standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter for the first time.

It's a significant accomplishment, but it's far from the World Health Organization's recommended level of five micrograms per cubic meter. It's also an average; PM2.5 levels still range significantly higher in the winter.

That’s just part of the explanation for the recent air pollution spikes in and around Beijing. The government's recent efforts to spur China's slowing economy and ensure adequate power supplies have boosted China's coal output to record levels.

For now, Beijing's antipollution promises are being overshadowed by Covid, human rights concerns and the pageantry of Olympic competition. But if the crisp winter days are marred by haze and health warnings, that narrative will change, reinforcing longstanding perceptions of China's environment. For a Chinese government that's struggled to boost its global image for years, the outcome matters as much as the medals.


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