Predicting the future is an imperfect science, but here’s a prediction you can bet on: 5 years from now the 2008 Beijing Olympics will be viewed as the turning point in the fight for our planet’s sustainability. To be sure, most of the press leading up to the event has focused on the high levels of pollution in Beijing. The environmental concerns are substantial, here are some startling statistics:
- 70% of all fresh water around the city is undrinkable
- 1,200 new motor vehicles are added in the city each day
- Over 400,000 people die prematurely from air pollution each year
- Air pollutants over China increased by 50% in the past 10 years alone
These concerns are shared by the International Olympic Committee which has weighed in with their own assessment, stating that for certain events “there may be some risk” to the athletes. Given the substantial pollution concerns surrounding the event, the IOC and other international groups are setting up a measurement system and fallback plans in case the health risks to athletes are excessive.
Beijing’s “Clean Up” Effort
In an effort to deal with these concerns and avoid a black eye once the eyes of the world tune into the Games, the city of Beijing and the Chinese government have taken several near-term steps. The city has shut down or relocated many factories to places outside of the city and put into place a system of measurements and standards to assess the number of clean air days (called “blue sky days”) each year. Beijing has taken other measures, including trial traffic bans, increased tree planting and ordering its power plants to switch from coal to gas. For their part, the Chinese government established a far-reaching set of rules, guidelines, and goals that are part of a 5-year environmental plan from 2006 through 2010. The 5-year plan includes improving energy efficiency by cutting energy consumption by 20 percent per unit of GDP, along with a 10 percent cut in major pollutants, between 2006 and 2010.
But China is a huge country whose economy is growing quickly, with a voracious appetite for fossil fuels and related pollutants. On the one hand, it’s not realistic that the economy will slow significantly for any event, even the Olympics. Equally unrealistic is that measures put in place within the past 1 to 2 years could have a meaningful impact in such a short timeframe. Indeed, the country’s discharge of sulfur dioxide and COD (a measure of water pollution) saw year-on-year increases of 1.2% and 1.8% in 2006. And the government recently announced that the air pollution goals for 2007 were missed. So what’s the real story? Are the changes going on in Beijing and China prior to the Olympics just for show? Are are they the beginning of systemic changes that will have a global impact?
Turning Olympics Promises Into Environmental Realities
If you read between the lines and dig into the action plans, you’ll see that the Chinese government is taking broad and meaningful steps to address the environmental crisis that threatens the country long after the Beijing Olympics are gone and forgotten. Some of these steps are bold not only in their scale but also in their intent. A few examples:
*Measurement - Hebei Province, near Beijing, has installed over 500 air and water monitoring facilities
*Accountability for waste – the government is testing a new system that charges residents by the amount of trash they generate
*Automobile emissions – the government has placed a ban on sales of cars that don’t meet “China IV standards” (same as Euro IV) from March 2008
*Investment in new technologies – the government has committed to increase investment in nanotech, including eco-friendly applications
As the Games approach and China is faced with global shame amid the spotlight, we will hear a lot of debate about the sincerity and breadth of China’s environmental \commitment. I can hear the claims of greenwashing already. But to me, the symbol of China’s environmental efforts surrounding the games – the water cube – is an appropriate symbol. It’s a perfect example of the meaningful steps taken over the past few years – indeed, 80% of the facility’s water is recycled, it was designed for use after the Olympics end, and it contains a bevy of other green building features. So while the Olympics may have indeed been the catalyst that spurred the Chinese government into action, the combination of heightened awareness among top officials coupled with meaningful actions taken will serve to make this the turning point in the globe’s largest environmental challenge. And as the rest of the world looks upon China, with its huge population and seemingly insurmountable environmental challenges, and realizes that they have taken substantive steps to decrease their environmental footprint in a short timeframe, it should give the rest of the planet reason for hope.