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Beijing considers emergency plans to improve air quality

28 July 2008

BEIJING – Beijing could pull more cars from the roads and shut down additional factories as part of contingency measures if air quality worsens during the Olympic Games, state media reported Monday.

The city remained shrouded in a heavy haze in recent days, among the worst seen in Beijing this past month, despite a series of drastic pollution controls put in force 20 July that included pulling half the city’s 3.3 million vehicles off the roads, closing some factories in the capital and surrounding provinces, and halting most construction.

The city’s chronic air pollution has been a huge source of concern for Olympic organizers.

The games, which will bring 10,500 athletes and hundreds of thousands of spectators to Beijing, open on 8 August, less than two weeks away.

Beijing authorities could announce special measures soon, the official English-language China Daily reported.

"We will implement an emergency plan … 48 hours in advance … if the air quality deteriorates during the Aug. 8-24 Games," Li Xin, a senior engineer with the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, was quoted as saying.

Li did not give specifics. The newspaper quoted another environmentalist, Zhu Tong, as suggesting up to 90 percent of the cars could be taken off the road if needed.

Beijing’s air pollution index in the last four days has failed to meet the national standard for "good" air quality, rising above 100, which means the air was "unhealthy for sensitive groups."

Visibility throughout the city was reduced to less than one kilometre, with high-rises reduced to ghostly outlines.

A day earlier, during the opening ceremony of the Athletes’ Village, the housing complex was invisible from the nearby main Olympic Green.

Soaring temperatures of about 32 degrees Celsius, 70 percent humidity and little wind, have helped create a soupy mix of harmful chemicals, particulate matter and water vapour.

On Monday, Du Shaozhong, deputy director of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, defended anti-pollution efforts, saying the low visibility doesn’t necessarily mean the air quality is bad.

"If it looks foggy, it has something to do with the climate as well as pollution. … From what we’ve done and the measures we are taking, we can guarantee the air would be good during the games. The IOC has given their judgment that the air quality will be up to par," Du told a news conference.

Environmental group Greenpeace issued a report Monday giving Beijing a mixed assessment of environmental efforts undertaken for the games.

"We recognise the long-term initiatives made by Beijing’s government in improving air quality," such as adding subway lines, enacting stricter auto emissions, and retrofitting coal-burning factories with clear technology, Greenpeace campaign director Lo Sze Ping told a news conference.

However, Beijing also missed opportunities to use the games as a platform to promote more ambitious environmental protection measures, he said.

"Despite these efforts, Beijing’s air quality today is probably not yet up to what the world will be expecting from an Olympic host city," Lo said.

[AP / Expatica]