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.