Double-digit economic growth is something you can actually see in the capital city of the People's Capitalist Republic of China. Every 24 hours, another thousand new Buicks, cute little homegrown Cherys, and buff black Audis swarm onto the 10-lane parking lots that ring the city. Every other belching truck hauls steel or concrete, every other city block boasts another 50-story investment scheme. Imperial avenues, bizarchitecture skyscrapers, distant mountains — all dematerialize in the stinking haze.
The air isn't always so awful: Sometimes the wind sweeps through, revealing a blue canopy overhead. But on a bad day — come August, say, when temperatures approach 100 degrees — the atmosphere around Beijing becomes a photochemical bouillabaisse of coal smog, steel-mill spume, and tailpipe crud, mingled with concrete dust and baked in the oven formed by the surrounding hills.
Just the place for the summer Olympics.
China won its bid for the 2008 games in part by vowing to put on a "Green Olympics" — a symphony of clean tech and energy efficiency that would do Greenpeace proud. In the six years since, officials have been battling to make at least some of that happen. They've shuttered the worst of Chairman Mao's beloved old blast furnaces, torn up streets to build subway lines, upgraded sewage treatment plants. They've planted tens of millions of trees, pulverizing a nearby mountain for fresh soil.
Lovely stuff, long overdue. And, this being the Olympics, there's also plenty of showboating. The new national stadium — dubbed the Bird's Nest — is rigged with an intricate rainwater-capture system to feed the infield grass. The bubbly blue National Aquatics Center — better known as the Water Cube — is wrapped in a high-efficiency thermal polymer skin. The Olympic Village is being outfitted with solar-powered showers. A fleet of electric buses is on the way, along with 3,000 lithium-ion garbage trucks. Even grim old Tiananmen Square, 5 miles due south, now boasts energy-efficient streetlights. (No word about the Energy Star rating of the Great Helmsman himself, still wowing crowds in his refrigerated glass crypt.)
All of which might count for something had China's economy not chosen the same moment to go on a skyscraping, steel-milling, coal-fired binge. With barely 365 days left on Tiananmen Square's digital Olympic countdown clock, city officials are battling to avoid a spectacularly public mud bath.
The Olympics are China's coming-out party, payback for smug Westerners and a victory lap for the Godzilla of the global economy. The stone-cold suits who run China Inc. don't want the celebration spoiled by smogged-out skylines or marathoners in face masks.
The Bird's Nest stadium will boast a rainwater-capture system to irrigate the infield. But that won't improve air quality in the city.
Beijing's bad air — and the rest of what the International Olympic Committee termed the city's "environmental challenge" — was on the table from the start of the city's Olympic bid in 2000. Chinese officials promised to pour $12.2 billion into cleaning up. They pledged to reduce atmospheric concentrations of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide to meet the requirements of the World Health Organization.
Particulate matter — dust and grit — would "reach the level of major cities in developed countries." An official "Olympic Action Plan," released in 2002, laid out a layer cake of city wide improvements — including more than 400 miles of new expressway — liberally plastered with green icing: "pollution- free burning, geothermal-operated pumps, solar energy power generating, solar energy heating, fuel cells, and nanometer materials." Beijing 2008, the document proclaimed, would be an "ecological city."
Olympics or not, China's capital — population 15 million with a bullet — clearly needed an environmental overhaul. Officials have been using the games as a pretext to renovate or replace thousands of Mao-vintage backyard foundries and coal furnaces. They're retrofitting the city's big power plants with scrubbers — standard-issue in the US and Europe since the 1980s but still a novelty in China. They cajoled the city's most infamous polluter, the Shougang Group, into closing or relocating its most noxious steel mills.
But the impact of China's economic eruption couldn't be so neatly finessed — especially at ground zero, Beijing. Two million new cars overwhelmed the city's expressways before the lane paint dried. Countless new air conditioners kept power plants cranking — and the hotter and smoggier the air, the harder they cranked. Neighboring cities cheerfully rolled out the welcome mat for the capital's filthiest factories, then spewed record amounts of coal smoke into the region's skies to keep them humming.
And so, the dream of a green city has quietly given way to a simpler approach: hitting the Off button. Detailed plans have yet to emerge; even in a one-party state, politicians can't run roughshod over public opinion or business interests. One certainty is a ban on excavation at the city's 3,000-plus non-Olympic construction sites — the source of up to one-third of the capital's airborne dust, by local estimates. There's also talk of closing factories in and around Beijing for as much as two months before and during the games.
Another likely option: keeping some of those new cars in their garages. Last November, in what was widely seen as a dry run for 2008, officials used a three-day summit of African heads of state to test strategies. They restricted access to certain routes and limited the use of both private and government vehicles, taking an estimated 800,000 cars and trucks off the road in and around Beijing. A NASA satellite recorded nitrogen oxide reductions of up to 40 percent. As the post-Mao leader Deng Xiaoping might have said: "Who cares whether the cat is green as long as it catches mice?"
Just one problem: The Olympics are scheduled for August. That's when the winds change direction, blowing in foul air from the heavily industrialized Hebei province and trapping it against the surrounding mountains. A recent study by US and Chinese researchers, using the most advanced atmospheric models, found that up to 70 percent of Beijing's summer particulate pollution originates outside the city. In other words, you could shut down the city, close the highways, turn off the power, and still have a seriously bad air day.
That message struck a chord with the International Olympic Committee. In April, a visiting IOC inspection team pointedly asked for further details on the antipollution campaign. They also requested "contingency plans" should all efforts fall short by opening day. City officials referred vaguely to "hard measures" — reportedly including forced, last-minute vacations not only for factory workers but also for the capital's resident army of civil servants. Whether they can strong-arm upwind provinces — including much of China's industrial heartland — into blowing off a couple weeks' worth of GDP to clear the air over rival Beijing is an open question.
And there's always the Hail Mary play: cloud seeding. Should air quality threaten to steal the show, the Beijing Meteorological Bureau promises to have its fleet of cloud-seeding aircraft warmed up on the runways, ready to bomb the sky with silver iodide and set off air-scrubbing showers over competition areas.
And if even these last-ditch efforts fail? "What can you do?" shrugged Hein Verbruggen, leader of the inspection team. "Let's be open here. We can't say tomorrow, 'OK, We'll go somewhere else.'"
Photograph by Tony LawRandy Wilber is an air pollution connoisseur. Senior sport physiologist for the US Olympic Committee, he has made five trips to Beijing since March 2006, lugging an air-quality monitor to all 31 Olympic venues. The city's atmosphere, he says tactfully, is "significantly worse" than that of Los Angeles, the US standard for big-city pollution. Then there's the heat. In August, Wilber recorded daytime temperatures consistently in the 90s, with relative humidity approaching 95 percent. "For endurance events," he says, "that's borderline hazardous." His overall assessment: "Not good."
Most researchers focus on pollution's long-term consequences — heart disease and cancer. For Wilber and the 600 high- performance humans he advises, it's the immediate impact that matters. His hit list includes the full array of Beijing's atmospheric condiments. Colorless and odorless carbon monoxide is a "biochemical competitor," preventing oxygen from binding to hemoglobin so it can be carried to muscles. Nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter cause exercise-induced asthma and "airway hyper-responsiveness," either of which can suddenly strike athletes with no history of susceptibility. Ozone has similar effects and is tricky to predict because its formation depends on sunlight and heat. Sulfur dioxide burns the eyes, with implications for sports like shooting and archery. All these effects are aggravated by high respiration rates.
"Our athletes spend years preparing," he says. "Medals are decided by hundredths of a second. You bet they take this seriously."
Many of them are getting an early taste, as Beijing hosts a dozen international sporting events this summer, trial runs for next year's games. Wilber will be carting around a pneumotachometer — a breathing device connected to a laptop computer — to check his charges for pollution-induced health problems. And he has extra incentive to find them. The most common asthma treatments contain so-called beta-2 agonists — stimulants banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency as performance enhancers. Their use requires a formal diagnosis, followed by approval from the IOC; one unauthorized whiff and your hard-earned medal could vanish. In recent years, Wilber says, about 27 percent of US Olympic athletes have been officially diagnosed with exercise-induced respiratory problems. Not surprisingly, he expects that figure to increase in Beijing.
Either way, Wilber and his team at the USOC's Performance Services Division are recommending an unusual addition to US athletes' bag of competitive tricks: activated-charcoal face masks, both on the field and off. They've also put out a handy booklet of 2008 Olympic survival tips, such as using over-the-counter ibuprofen or indomethacin to partially block pollution's lung-searing effects. And they're urging US teams to find living sites elsewhere in the region — South Korea, for example — and to wait until the last moment before flying into Beijing. American swimmers and track-and-field athletes followed that strategy before the 2004 Athens Games, setting up bases on Majorca and Crete, respectively, to avoid dirty urban air. "I don't think it's a coincidence that they won more medals than other US teams," Wilber says.
Will it work? "We hope for the best," he replies. "And we prepare for the worst."
Two miles south of the Olympic park, what looks like an industrial moon base is shoehorned into a dusty old Beijing neighborhood. It's the Beijing Taiyanggong CCGT Trigeneration Project, a 780-megawatt, natural gas fired power plant green enough to be worth $100 million in Kyoto-authorized carbon credits. The twin turbines, GE's latest and greatest, will keep the lights on at the Bird's Nest and elsewhere, replacing some 80 old coal furnaces. "Clean energy is the future," says Ding Haijun, GE's point man in China. "Having this plant here for the Olympics makes us very proud as Chinese."
Two Chinas are colliding at next year's Olympics — a gritty GDP machine and the 21st-century Cinderella it wants to be. The Taiyanggong facility makes a lovely pumpkin carriage, but it's just one power plant among the PRC's thousands.
Jiang Kejun works on statistical models at Beijing's Energy Research Institute, an arm of the powerful National Development and Reform Commission. Like a lot of people in China, he's more than a little stunned after a decade of breakneck GDP growth. "Change is happening so fast," he says. "Our 2000 forecast of energy demand has been completely transformed. And, of course, everyone wants an American lifestyle. So on things like air pollution, we have to keep running faster just to stay in one place." On a cloudless April afternoon, he can't see more than a mile out of his 14th-floor office window.
Once upon a time, staging the Olympics in Beijing would have been much easier: Build some big stadiums, fill them with loyal party members, keep the foreign guests well fed, and declare victory. But successful cleanups in other developed cities have raised expectations. China wants to take its place as a world leader, not just the new heavyweight champ of carbon emissions. Scenes of marathoners in gas masks, beamed around the world, would be a PR disaster that no amount of glossy Bird's Nest blimp shots could offset. "Brand China," a report published by London's Foreign Policy Centre, suggests that the whole idea of using the Olympics to gild China's image is risky. "The only single events that remake national images," it notes, "tend to be bad ones."
Back at the Olympic Green, another palpable emblem of the new China rises from the dust: the four sleek, bladelike buildings of Digital Beijing, IT hub for the 2008 games. Across the street, an escarpment of future luxury apartments looms over the Water Cube like some kind of, well, Great Wall. The city's business elite is buzzing with rumors that Bill Gates — a demigod in China — has reserved a penthouse for the games. Will he be better off watching them on television? That depends on which way the wind blows.