China is to unleash Sunday a massive $17 million programme to clean up Beijing air ahead of Olympics, but nature seems to be playing spoilsport!
Beijing is dubbed the most polluted city in the world, but authorities wont give in. They have announced a series of measures including traffic ban, factory closure and cloud-seeding in a desperate attempt to see the Olympic air is breathable and conforms to the WHO standards.
AdvertisementWhatever the efficacy of the mandarins, nature itself could be against them, some suggest.
Beijing's worst air-quality days are often not the result of human activities, but meteorological phenomena -- namely, the lack of cold fronts pushing across the city from Mongolia.
"They are trying every conceivable thing and that is the right approach," said Kenneth Rahn, a professor emeritus at the University of Rhode Island, who's been working with Chinese researchers on interpreting air quality data. "But when the air is worst in Beijing, it's the hardest to control."
Stricter car emissions regulations, high-tech smog fighting and possibly cooking the books have helped Beijing reduce its pollution levels over the last decade even as the city's population doubled from 2000 to 2006.
Still, the levels of particulate matter, or soot, as well as other health-damaging pollutants, experience peaks in which they are far above the World Health Organization's recommendations. Events requiring prolonged outdoor exposure and air intake, like the marathon, could even be postponed due to the regulations.
"There is both a local component and a regional component to the pollutants that cause unhealthy air in Beijing, and the severity of their effects are driven by weather fronts and winds," said Rahn.
"Since it's controlled by the weather, it will be a matter of luck whether the bad air periods correspond with days of outdoor Olympic events."
Locally generated pollutants in Beijing consist primarily of organic matter from transportation, factories and cooking, while regional sources of pollution include ammonium sulfates and ammonium nitrates from coal-burning power plants, industry and transportation sources, which are easily transported long distances in the atmosphere.
"The air pollution pattern in Beijing is unusual, with high and low concentrations that can differ by a factor of 50 to 100," Rahn said. "When the winds shift to the north and bring in clear air from Mongolia, the air can be relatively clean, though that's not the norm during the summer. But when winds are from the south, where there is a large population and lots of industrial activity, the air can be particularly hazardous."
"It's one thing to take steps to try to clean up a big city, but unless they also clean up the surrounding provinces, it's going to have a minor effect," said Rahn. "They've tried to relocate some of the polluting industries over time, and Beijing has gotten a little cleaner each year because of it, but the background pollutants still blow in just the same."
The government's plan to reduce pollution during the Olympics focuses on cutting automobile use in half while also temporarily shutting down factories and other large polluters. Rahn said that it is an expensive plan, since the government must reimburse the factories for their economic losses, and the plan will remain in place through the conclusion of the Paralympic Games in late September.
Forced factory shutdowns are aiming to reduce the amount of pollution coming from surrounding regions, but the government must balance the economic impact of such actions. As a result, it's hard to predict the actual magnitude of some of China's stated actions.
Some international Olympic officials have praised the Chinese government's efforts. Earlier this week,the British Olympic Association chief executive, Simon Clegg, expressed confidence that the shutdowns -- which he called "radical arrangements" -- would clear the air.
But hopes of a blue-sky Olympics could still remain in the realms of fantasy.
China might be mounting the most aggressive effort to clean up. Still they can't wish away the devastating impact of breakneck development.
Last summer, in what amounts to one of the larger urban science experiments in history, Chinese officials forced drivers with car license plates ending in odd-digits to alternate driving days with even-digit licensed drivers.
The system took roughly half the cars off the road per day, but Rahn says that the actual reduction of particulate matter in the city's air was negligible, most likely less than 10 percent.
"The great automobile experiment did not yield detectable changes in PM (particulate matter)," Rahn said.
The same goes for China's attempts at cloud seeding, either to flush the pollutants out of the air, or prevent rain from spoiling outdoor events. Reports have surfaced that the Chinese government has a veritable army of rain modifiers armed with anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers loaded with cloud-seeding compounds. But Rahn said there is no evidence that weather modification on the scale it would have to practiced in Beijing is feasible.
"They cannot depend on weather modification. Nature is bigger and stronger than the Chinese people and rockets," Rahn said. "The west has known this for 50 years but China is in the stage of development where they think science and technology can do everything."
"I sympathize with them. They're doing all the right things, but unfortunately the right things may not be good enough," Rahn said. "There will surely be some good days and some bad days. But the meteorological uncertainties mean that you can't predict how bad it will be more than two or three days ahead, and that may not be enough time for them to reschedule the marathon or the long-distance bike races.
"My advice to them at this point is to keep up the good work and then pray to the Mongolian Weather Gods to send cold fronts. That's their best hope for clean air."