Monday, July 21, 2008

More on Beijing's air quality

Leave it to a publication that knows the country to give us an informed view. Austin Ramzy:

What I was hopping to convey was that it's a bit silly (and yes, I've been guilty of it, too) to look out the window with a month to go before the Games, see the Beijing haze and declare that the Games are in peril. The short-term measures that are being put in place, like taking close to half the cars off Beijing streets nearly three weeks before the events start, will have a significant effect on air quality.

This seems like the right opportunity to reproduce part of a pitch I sent Slate on June 24, asking them to let me write about the overblown concerns over Beijing's air. I outlined for them six reasons for optimism:

1. Cars pulled off the road, gas prices raised: ozone reduction. The main cause of air pollution is vehicle emissions, and according to a paper published by Harvard researchers (who should be accessible), 70 percent of the nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere come from car emissions, which react with particles in the air and petroleum to form ozone (O3). During the Sino-Africa summit in November 2006, Beijing experimented with their odd-even license plate plan that effectively eliminates half the city's cars from the roads, and the Harvard researchers found that over a three-day span there was a 40% reduction in NOx. I'd love to find out more, ask about implications, etc.

2. Construction moratorium and factory shutdown: particles reduction. Beijing's treated these last few months like an 11th hour cram session to finish up projects like subway lines and condos. We're about to go from that extreme to the other of no construction at all. The large dust particles that construction projects throw into the atmosphere will disappear, helping clear the air.

3. Geography and seasonal winds. Hills to the north and northwest block the southern winds that blow through during the summer, which means Beijing needs to shut down the big plants just south of the city lest they want the smog to settle over the metropolis. They know about this, and they will. Winds blow from the north during the spring, bringing down lots of dust from Mongolian sandstorms. This contributes to the pollution we see these days, but they won't be a factor come August.

4. Because national Olympic Committees aren't worried, and aren't they the ones that should be? Darryl Seibel, USOC spokesperson: "Given the fact that the appropriate bodies are aware of this, are making it a priority and have a plan to do something about it, we're comfortable."

[Need to talk to the Australian Olympic Committee... I suspect one of their official's "concerns" over air pollution got twisted horribly out of context, as somehow this story transformed into this, which uses loaded words like "ban" and "boycott." Interview with Canadian Olympic Committee, UK Sport and IOC spokesperson TK.]

5. A quote from David Streets, senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, who I interviewed for the ESPN piece: "They also may of course do more things -- they have the ability to reduce emissions more if it looks like things are really bad; they may say, Okay, all factories shut down and stop driving your car unless you absolutely have to the next few days. It's the advantage of centrally controlled countries: they can do this and hope for the best."

6. A little bit of luck. Mention of how six is a lucky number. As is eight, as in the Opening Ceremonies date, 8-8-08. Talk about how the best thing that could happen for Beijing is rain and wind in the week before the Opening Ceremony to clear up the air (this would have a tremendous effect, and I may be able to find a meteorologist to talk about it). Talk to the Italian forecast team that was recently selected to be the official weather team for these Games.


I'd take a much more aggressive approach in defending China's anti-pollution initiatives. There's been so much pessimism about Beijing's air that I'd like to pull the discussion back towards the middle. It may seem bad now, but there are short-term solutions that really can (because they've proven to) work.

Long-term sustainability is a different beast, but when you're talking about whether the air will be clear during the weeks of the Olympic and Paralymic Games, then I must reiterate my initial feeling that things will be just fine. Take a deep breath, people.

My Slate pitch was politely declined.

POSTSCRIPT: I know this post comes late, but I've been in Inner Mongolia the last five days and only used the Internet for an hour in that span. Don't know how I survived. Anyway, look for some massive backdated posts in the coming week, if I can get my wits about me. (They drink a lot of baijiu out there. A lot. Our versions of GANBEI were not at all like this:)

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