By Diane Porter

There are already undeniable legacies of the 2008 Olympic Games: eight gold medals hanging around U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps’ neck, for instance, or the otherworldly sprint that helped Jamaican runner Usain Bolt break Michael Johnson’s record in the men’s 100 meter race. There are visual reminders, as well; the Olympic pavilions, Bird’s Nest and Water Cube will remain a part of central Beijing life for decades.

Perhaps the most crucial legacy, however, is yet to be played out. As hotels empty, athletes and television crews return to their home countries, and Beijing goes back to a life more sheltered from the world, the lingering question is this: Will the enormous and by most accounts successful efforts to reduce the city’s pollution during the Olympic games continue in some fashion, improving life for those who live there and reducing the city’s footprint on the global environment?

“Beijing will be built into a livable city,” said Du Shaozhong, deputy head of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau in a press conference the day before closing ceremonies.

“We will take some new measures to ensure that air quality will reach a new level after the Olympic Games,” he said. “Whether it is automobile emissions reduction, or construction site dust reduction or coal pollution reduction, I believe that the requirements will be more stringent.”

Shaozhong and state media were pleased to note that the numerous, complicated and costly measures taken to help reduce the city’s smog had resulted in the clearest skies in a decade. (See picture above at the beach volleyball competition: credit: Sadat/Xinhua; Beijing 2008 Olympics.) Those measures had included closing hundreds of factories in and around Beijing and taking half of the city’s cars off the road daily. Their efforts were aided by several days of rain, which eased the haze that had been worrisome enough that world-record holder Haile Gebrselassie withdrew from the marathon and some American athletes wore black breathing masks when they first arrived in the city.

State officials did not announce the details of what they said would be strict new measures, saying they would do so after they had properly studied the results of the Beijing efforts. But Du said that companies that pollute the air heavily would need to address their pollution problems before they reopened.

“If they can’t resolve the pollution problems, they must stop or limit their production,” he said.

Construction-site dust, vehicle emissions and coal pollution would also be targeted, Du said.

The skies over Beijing had been one of the deepest concerns before the Olympic Games began. News organizations found independent ways to monitor daily levels of particulate matter in a city whose air at times far exceeded the levels the World Health Organization (WHO) deems safe for ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide and other pollutants. Despite the reassurances of the International Olympic Committee’s medical commission chairman, Arne Ljungqvist, that the air would be clear in time for the Games, track and field teams trained outside of the city. Athletes with asthma took extra precautions, and officials said that it would be possible to reschedule outdoor events if the pollution was too dangerous on any given day.

Instead, China’s “blue sky” index – which is different from the air quality index used in the United States – rated air quality in the capital between excellent and fairly good on most days of the Olympics.

“We have had 100% compliance days in August and nine great single days,” Du told BBC News. “Without these measures … the current air quality would have been impossible.”

The BBC was one of the organizations doing its own monitoring of particulate matter, and determined that the city met the strictest WHO standards for particulate matter in six out of the first 11 days of the games. By the end of the Games, the Air Pollution Index (API) had dropped by more than 20 percentage points compared with the same time period in 2007, from about 80 points in August 2007 to around 56 points in 2008.

Nitrogen oxide related to vehicle emissions fell 61 percent, according to the city environmental protection bureau.

One possibility for future action would be making the odd-even license-plate driving restrictions permanent beyond September 20, the original end date, but it remains to be seen whether that would be possible once workers need to return to the still-closed factories and construction sites.

Perhaps the most poignant measurement of the air improvements showed up in the behavior of the city’s population: Beijing residents opened their windows, spent time on their balconies, watched sunsets over the mountains and saw the stars overhead at night for the first time in years.

Zhou Manjun, who lives in Beijing, told China View news that he could sleep with his bedroom windows open during the Olympics. “I never did that in the past, because I didn’t want to wake up to a room full of dust,” he said. “But now it’s all so clean.”

Wang Weihua, a Beijing taxi driver, agrees. “We can breathe much better,” she told Reuters news service. “These restrictions show the difference the cars make.

“It will get worse once they are back on the road, but it could still be better than it was, because of the environmental measures taken regarding the factories,” Wang said.

Zhou and Wang’s reactions, and those of the 15 million residents of Beijing, will play a key role in deciding whether the city’s skies change permanently, said Matthew Fraser, Associate Director for Research and a professor in Arizona State University’s Global School of Sustainability.

“It’s most important to note that this was clear it was meant to be a temporary program,” Fraser said. “It’s very different to fix things long term.

“To me, the interesting thing is whether the people of Beijing now have the political clout with the authoritarian regime there to require change, or whether it will go back to business as usual.”

There is a substantial economic cost to shutting down the city’s industrial engine, even for a short time. Job creation and economic growth are paramount to China, which has the world’s fourth largest economy. Tao Dong, chief Asia economist for Credit Suisse in Hong Kong, told Bloomberg News that China may have lost as much as 3 percent of its estimated $585 billion gross domestic product by shutting down Beijing-area factories.

The World Bank has said China has 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities. Many of its industries – cement plants, power plants, and steel mills, for instance – are heavy polluters. Because the environment and the economy of Beijing go hand in hand, the positive effects of the city’s vacation from pollution will last only as long as the vacation does, Fraser said. “There might be some short-term health benefits,” he said. “But the atmosphere is transient. You expect that as soon as the emissions come back, the air quality will rapidly reach the levels of before.

“If they were to keep some of the dirtier factories shut, that would have an effect,” said Fraser. “That would be kind of a shift in the stated or unstated national priorities for China.

“I think that’s really what it’s going to take. It’s going to need to be either recognition from above or demand from below, and it’s very different there because of the authoritarian regime. In the United States, it’s really demand from below,” Fraser said.

The 2008 Games were not the first summer Olympics to focus intense attention on pollution. The Los Angeles games in 1984 imposed some similar actions to reduce traffic and industrial smog, with similar results: clearer skies and a happier populace. In Athens in 2004, the city built mass transit, planted thousands of trees and closed factories for the month of August.

The Atlanta Games in 1996 provided an opportunity to study not only the results of such efforts, but also the effect on a population’s health. Ozone pollution and severe traffic congestion in the steamy capital city inspired officials to add car-pool lanes, ban traffic from downtown, increase the city’s mass transit ability and add natural-gas buses to the fleet. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study of the four weeks before the Olympics, the 17 days of the games and the four weeks afterward found reductions not only in the levels of pollutants but also in the rates of emergency asthma events in children ages 1-16. The CDC monitored two pediatric emergency departments, the HMO database, Georgia Medicaid claims and the hospital discharge database, and found that acute asthma events dropped by 11% in some areas to 44% in others.

One study of the Beijing results will continue through Sept. 30. Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography of UC San Diego are sending unmanned aircraft equipped with sensors into the skies above the city to gather information about pollutant levels and their effects on the rays of the sun and meteorological events. The scientists hope to measure the activity of China’s pollution “plumes,” or the transport paths that particulates and smog follow as they make their way around the world. The unmanned planes will take off from South Korea’s Cheju Island and fly directly into the plumes.

“Thanks to the concern of Olympic organizers, the Chinese government, and the cooperation of the Korean government, we have a huge and unprecedented opportunity to observe a large reduction in everyday emissions from a region that is very industrially active,” said Professor V. Ramanathan in a press release from Scripps.

In an interview shortly before the Beijing Games began, Dr. Albert J. Polito, director of The Lung Center at Mercy and chief of the Division of Pulmonary Medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, discussed the effects of pollution on the human respiratory system. He spoke about not only the athletes, who would be in the city for a relatively short period, but also the residents.

“It will be very interesting to see how this plays out,” Polito said. “I know Beijing has done a lot, and you have to give them credit for trying to make some progress in this regard. You hope that it’s going to be a long-lived thing, not just for the Olympics.”

Worldwide comment and opinion has not been lost on Chinese officials.

“We have noticed overseas and domestic public opinion has pinned high hopes on the efforts,” Du Shaozhong said

What can the United States learn from Beijing’s efforts?

“That things can be done in the short term to really improve the environment,” Fraser said.

Copyright © 2008 | Distributed by Noofangle Media