Anxiety has been running high among Olympic athletes about upcoming exposure to Beijing's poor air quality. After a lifetime of hard training, no one wants to cough their way across the finish line.
The big games are less than three weeks away, and the Los Angeles Times reports that Beijing is further cracking down on pollution by yanking cars off the roads, expanding mass transit and staggering work hours. It will be interesting to see what effects this may have, both in terms of clearing the air in the short term and long-term policies around the world.
Until September 20, owners of 3.3 million private cars in Beijing will only be allowed to drive on alternate days, based on whether the last digit of their license plates is even or odd. Those in violation face a $14 fine. Perhaps this idea will be more effective than it has been in Latin America, given the short duration of the plan, the nature of China's more controlled society and the fact that work hours for many employees are also being staggered.
The smog-choked capital has also added 2,000 buses, improved bus routes, extended the hours of operation for mass transit, opened a new subway and light-rail line and banned the dirtiest freight trucks. Also, many of the buildings for the Olympics are being built with green features.
Some greens are calling the changes too little too late, although it could be said that the city is acting swifter than many American cities with polluted air. But the eyes of the world are now on Beijing, and China's booming expansion means the stakes are high. The city reportedly adds 1,000 new cars a week, and 16 of the world's 20 most-polluted cities are in China, according to the Worldwatch Institute.
Hopefully the changes will both make a difference before the games, and spur long-term solutions. With greater awareness about the devastating effects of air pollution comes greater responsibility. China has an opportunity to test its goals of leadership in the world.
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