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Beijing Games Had Worst Air Pollution Ever

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Remember the Chinese government's draconian crackdown on air pollution before the 2008 Olympics?

Turns out it didn't make much of a difference after all, according to a new analysis by researchers from Oregon State University and Peking University.

The study, published June 18 in the online edition of Environmental Science & Technology, found that the mean concentrations of particulate matter, measured during and after the Olympics and Paralympic games, held between July 20 and September 20, were "not statistically different."

Some decreases in pollution occurred during the games, the study fund, but mostly thanks to rain and wind. Government controls, the researchers said, accounted for just 16 percent of the improvements noted.

These conclusions undercut the Chinese government's high-profile efforts to make its air safe for athletes and spectators - and greenwash its reputation for sketchy environmental and industrial health standards.

During the Olympics and Paralympics, Chinese officials ordered half the cars off the road on alternate days and closed factories and construction sites, not only in the capital city but also in industrial enclaves as distant as the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Some businesses were ordered to switch from coal to natural gas, and some truck movements were stopped.

Yet, the study shows, air particulate concentrations in Beijing during the games were 2.9, 3.5, and 1.9 times higher than those observed during previous Olympics in Atlanta, Sydney and Athens, respectively.

Moreover, the study said, pollution levels in Beijing were roughly twice the guidelines set by the World Health Organization.

As Oregon State scientist Staci Simonovich told the London Daily Telegraph: "This demonstrates how difficult it is to solve environmental problems on a short-term, local basis." If a Communist state can't dictate effective pollution curbs, even briefly, that suggests that all nations need to think through their clean air plans. In a non-authoritarian state, you have to build political consensus for regulation. That isn't easy, so you don't want to have to do it twice.

The new study offered an interesting insight into the way China's official environmental agency works. It noted that Peking University's readings for some particulate concentrations were generally 1.3 times higher than those from the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, a government agency. The paper attributed the disparity to "differences in the measurement methods used."

Given the high stakes for the Chinese government in making the air seem clean, we're skeptical that lower readings occurred by accident, Whatever the case, the Peking U. - Oregon State study seems careful and reliable.


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