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Analysis: Long-run wins for green Olympics

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by Siobhan Devine
Washington (UPI) Nov 7, 2007
Beijing's efforts to meet clean-air standards in time for the 2008 Olympics are drawing increased skepticism as the August deadline approaches. Worst-case scenarios depict marathoners coughing their way through smog to the finish line, prompting the International Olympic Committee to suggest that some competitions may be delayed due to pollution. Yet even if Beijing fails to meet Olympic expectations on time, some analysts say China's attempt to do so will have at least one or two lasting benefits for Beijing and beyond.

"Air is better than it was 10 years ago," said Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center, "but not clean enough for the endurance sports. However, cleaning up the air even partially will have the effect of lessening the number of people dying of respiratory illnesses somewhat."

According to a 2007 World Bank report, air pollution in China -- as measured by sulfur dioxide and particulate matter levels -- has been linked to "respiratory illness, reduced lung function, chronic bronchitis, and mortality." A three-year study released by the Jinghua Times in 2007 found 7 percent of children under the age of 6 in Beijing have levels of lead in their blood that surpass national standards. Auto emissions are thought to be the culprit, according to the Worldwatch Institute.

The upcoming Olympic Games have increased international attention to such statistics and to their implications for Olympic athletes. In order to minimize the risk to athletes, Beijing has already spent $35 billion to $40 billion on infrastructure and environmental improvements, according to Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China.

Yet in a recent Foreign Affairs article, Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, cautioned that Beijing is struggling to meet many of its environmental goals and concluded that "preparing for the Olympics has come to symbolize the intractability of China's environmental challenges and the limits of Beijing's approach to addressing them."

Indeed, many of the measures Beijing will undertake to meet international clean-air standards are temporary, scheduled to end with the last Olympic competition.

The proposed traffic ban is one example. A test run of the ban blocked 1.3 million cars per day from Beijing roads between Aug. 17 and 20. The trial reduced nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and particulate matter by 87, 1,362 and 4.8 tons, respectively, according to China Daily. In August 2008 the ban will be enforced again, yet only for the two weeks of the games.

In October, China's state-owned Xinhua news service announced that Beijing plans to close 1,000 small coal mines ahead of the Olympics, and various sources say the city may also attempt to limit production at coal-fired power plants in surrounding towns. Economy noted that some factories are resisting this proposal, however, drawing attention to China's enforcement troubles.

Moreover, said YingLing Liu, China program director at the Worldwatch Institute, such production limits "cannot go on for quite long after the Olympic games."

Yet while skepticism reigns, there are hints of lasting impact.

According to the China Environment Forum, Beijing's tap-water treatment rate is now 70 percent, up from 42 percent in 2001. Although immediate efforts have been limited to the Olympic Village, plans to extend potable tap water to the entire city are scheduled for after 2008.

Beijing also plans to install 14 wastewater treatment facilities ahead of the games, with the intention of achieving a 90-percent treatment rate in Beijing and nearby towns, according to the Forum.

While Turner points out that these improvements do not "change the fundamental problems in China's environmental governance structure," there may be some progress there as well.

China's State Environmental Protection Agency "has used the Olympics to push forward the creating of regional offices, with the first one set up in Beijing," Turner said. "This alone is something meaningful. If it continues and is done well, having six regional offices will bring enforcement closer to the ground and could have a big impact on pollution violations in the country."

Yet there is skepticism here, too, with some doubting that Beijing's "green" Olympic fervor will truly spill over to the rest of China.

"China is a very unbalanced kind of country," Liu said. "If you see, China has breathtaking economic growth, but different regions inside the country have different rates of growth. Those cities on the eastern coast, like Beijing, are much better off and have resources to dispense."

"But in the underdeveloped regions," she said, "I don't think environmental protection is getting a lot of attention, because what to eat is still the primary concern."

Income inequality in China increased by 50 percent in the two decades prior to 2005, according to a report that year from the U.N. Development Program.

Yet while Liu said she does not "see any lasting policies at this moment," she added that hosting the Olympics is "good in the sense that it helps to build public awareness of environmental protection in Beijing."

Turner agreed that public awareness was an Olympic byproduct "not to be ignored," particularly in light of SEPA statistics that claim pollution spurred 50,000 protests in 2006 alone.

"Informing and increasingly empowering the public is a pretty important step for China," Turner said, "and the public could be a bigger watchdog against local governments."

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Gates reassures Hu on Taiwan
Beijing (AFP) Nov 6, 2007
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday assured China's President Hu Jintao that the US government is "categorically" opposed to any moves by Taiwan towards independence.

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