Easy part of clean Beijing skies is over
Shi Jiangtao in Beijing – SCMP – Updated on Aug 30, 2008
Visitors to the Olympic Games may remember Beijing for the elaborate fireworks at the opening and closing ceremonies, but locals were more impressed by sunny, blue skies they have dreamed of for years.
But will the clearer air persist?
Ma Jun , head of the non-governmental Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said the improvements illustrated that the problem was not beyond the control of the government.
“It may be easy to achieve desirable results with emergency measures and the people’s almost unconditional support for the Olympics,” he said. “But the real challenge now is how to ensure a healthy and liveable environment for millions of residents in the years to come.”
Ministry of Environmental Protection assessments officer Mu Guangfeng said most of the last-minute restrictions were unlikely to continue. “We have also come to realise how bad the city’s pollution problems are” that only such desperate attempts could make a change, Mr Mu said.
But pollution researcher Ma Yongliang , of Tsinghua University, said: “Given the general trend in pollution reduction in the past decade, there is no reason to doubt that the environment will continue to improve and we will have more blue skies in the future.”
However, his optimism was not shared.
Liang Xiaoyan , of the Beijing-based Friends of Nature, said the intense criticism and unprecedented media exposure of Beijing’s air pollution at the Olympics had for the first time given mainlanders some idea of how far China lagged behind other countries in air quality standards.
“Many people who had never been abroad didn’t consider Beijing’s choking smog a problem. But because of the Olympics, they got to know the international standards on air quality and realised by themselves that China had a long way to go to improve its environment,” she said.
Zheng Yisheng , of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, agreed. “Never before have Beijing residents been so concerned about the environment we live in and the quality of the air we are breathing,” he said.
Professor Wang Jin of Peking University echoed the sentiment, saying the Games may have served as a catalyst to raise environmental awareness. “While we are still breathing the Grade I air quality, considered good by national standards, will we be able to accept Grade III air again after the Olympics?” he asked.
Although the public has little direct influence on the government, the heightened awareness about the air quality would translate into a shift in policy and gradually real change, according to Professor Wang, who specialises in environmental law. “Raised public expectations as a result of the unusual clear skies could have a negative impact on authorities as the public and non-governmental groups will demand more action on cutting pollution,” he said.
But to reduce pollution takes money, and Ms Liang said the improvement in the capital’s environment proved nothing but the government’s unbridled, unmatchable spending power.
“As long as authorities want, they are able to make anything happen at whatever the price,” she said. “We should ask how much it cost to close all those factories. Who is footing the steep bill, and is it fair for so many people in and around the capital to pay such a price?”
Ms Liang also noted that even though the temporary reduction in the number vehicles on the road had a noticeable effect on air quality, the government had yet to show it intended to discourage Beijingers from relying on private transportation. She also cautioned against a general perception that the authorities would take pollution as seriously after the Olympics as they did before the Games.
“I am not optimistic because I can’t see the same amount of motivation for authorities to tackle chronic environmental problems after the Olympics. The government may even consider lowering the already lax environmental standards to woo industries and make up for their Olympic losses,” she said.
For a government that too often lacks the motivation to make real changes, expressing rosy expectations may only lead to disappointment, environmentalists said.
Mr Ma Jun said the authorities should discuss the matter with businesses, NGOs and the public to work out a road map towards a sustainable and environmentally friendly future. “Don’t expect the sky will be always as blue as what we have now,” he said. “Whether the Games have a lasting legacy will largely depend on keeping up the good momentum.”