Battle of Beijing Over Air Pollution

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With the British Paralympic and London 2012 now officially closed with an incredibly successful summer of sport behind us, there seems to be Olympic and Paralympic fever in the air – air which is now remarkably clean in London compared to Beijing, where the impacts of potentially lethal smog have huge effects. And even though procedures have been put in place to combat this air pollution in Beijing, has there been any obvious improvement?

4 years ago at the previous Olympic and Paralympic games, it seemed that Beijing was lagging behind London in its ability to control the levels of pollutants in the city as it experienced heavy smog.  The air quality was 16 times worse than that in New York City, and visibility was so poor that in extreme cases flights from its airports were temporarily grounded. It was the 13th most air-polluted city in the world. A fact created as a result of the expanding population requiring more transportation, factories and energy, energy which comes primarily from burning fossil fuels.

A result of this extreme pollution many of the athletes experienced anxiousness and unrest about its potential health problems in the lead up and during the Olympic and Paralympic games in 2008. A striking example of this (according to ENTtoday) was seen when Sergio Paulinho, a cyclist who had previously won silver for Portugal, couldn’t compete in the games due to respiratory problems aggrevated by the atmospheric pollution. Furthermore the highly publicised games also highlighted the long-term and worrying effects on the civilians (such as respiratory, heart and eye problems), and questions were asked as to what steps could be taken to minimise these risks.

So what was done to combat the unhealthy smog? As soon as the games started Beijing decided to set aside $16 billion to improve the areas air quality through planting 22 million trees, closing some coal-burning factories and introducing alternating days of driving for car-owning civilians. The latter measure was only in place for the duration of the Olympic and Paralympic games, but in this short period of time there were improved health measurements in the population, and cardiovascular risks were decreased.

Four years on, there seems to be some improvement. Beijing previously measured pollution with a less reliable system so some days were classified by Beijing’s Ministry of Environmental Protection as ‘good’ to ‘moderate’ yet if these levels were measured using the more reliable downtown US embassy’s system they would have been classified as ‘unhealthy’. As a result of these discrepancies the city now records pollution using the downtown method which is precise and gives more accurate readings. These recordings have shown that ‘blue sky days’ (days with a good or moderate health reading) have risen from 100 in 1998 to 286 in 2011, indicating some improvements in atmospheric conditions.

Yet, in November and December of 2011 however, smog made visibility so bad that people could only see a few hundred metres ahead of themselves, roads were closed, flights were grounded and people even felt the need to wear protective face masks. Beijing is still classed as a badly air-polluted city, not helped by the rising percentage of people in China owning a car (which is increasing by 26% a year), and according to China Daily lung cancer rates are on the increase too.

It would seem that whilst Beijing has taken steps to reduce air pollution, the procedures have not been as rigorous as they could be. China seems to be on a steady course to becoming an international superpower so it could be assumed that it would be relatively easy to set quotas in its own capital city but the real issue here is willpower. Being a superpower comes at a cost, implementation often includes cutting back and investment in expensive technology and research, a price the current government seem unwilling to pay, so for the time being at least, the health of its population is destined to suffer.

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I am a second year student studying Physical Geography who (unsurprisingly enough) loves to travel, experience different cultures, and make people more aware of the ever-changing environments we live in. I would love to research or produce material for geographical documentaries, but for now I am happy studying our planet.

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