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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Air Pollution of Olympic Proportions

Air Date: Week of

Countdown clock to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games (Photo: Flickr/Gene Zhang)

Chinese officials promised the summer's Beijing Olympics would be the greenest ever. They've made great strides but air pollution still remains a problem. Living on Earth host Steve Curwood talks with Nick Nuttal, spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program about UNEPs recent report on the Beijing Olympics.


CURWOOD: Chinese officials promise the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics to be held next August and September will be the greenest ever. But, the President of the International Olympic Committee says some events could be postponed when the air is unacceptable. The United Nations Environment Program recently published a report on the progress China has made to clean its environment in advance of the Olympics. UNEP spokesperson Nick Nuttal says China has come a long way….but there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

Some tourists say that everywhere you look, you see reminders that Beijing will be hosting the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. (Photo: Flickr/Oldtasty)

NUTTAL: I think one of the real improvements they’ve made is they’ve made a real commitment to the use of renewable energy. All the places where the athletes will actually stay, like the Olympic Village. There’s been a lot of emphasis on things like solar power, a lot of emphasis on using heat pump technology, geothermal technology, indeed they’re also stepping up the mark quite happily on public transport. There’s been a lot of investment in light rail and bus. So, on many many fronts they’ve really been trying to green these Olympics. Certainly by the organizers of the Olympics. They’re really trying to live up to the Olympic spirit and the importance of the environment within that.

CURWOOD: So, what’s the most difficult problem they’ve had to tackle?

Buy early to beat the rush! Beijing stores are already selling 2008 Olympic souvenirs. (Photo: Flickr/Betta Design)

NUTTAL: I think the most difficult problem they’re facing is that Beijing is sitting—or the Beijing Olympics are sitting within a very large metropolitan area with a huge rising demand for energy, which is being met in part by the building of new coal-fired power stations and also that you’ve got a sharp rise in the number of new cars—there’s something like 1,000 new cars registered daily. And although they tried to encourage a switch from coal to natural gas and other alternatives, you’ve still got the problem of a huge amount of particles and soot particles being produced by the power stations in the area. And so regularly there are levels of particles in the atmosphere that regularly exceed the World Health Organization limits and that is a genuine concern to us, a genuine concern to them, and of course will be a great concern to the athletes if nothing can be done about this in the next 12 months.

The semi-transparent National Aquatics Center is also known as 'The Water Cube.' (Photo: Flickr/Wolfiewolf)

CURWOOD: So what more could they have done to do with particulates do you think?

NUTTAL: Well it’s difficult with the energy generation, I mentioned they have been assiduously trying to switch some of the coal-fired boilers to gas. There seems to be something of an opportunity with the transport network. They have now put in railway lines and subways and rapid bus transport for a considerable number of people. Indeed, the new lines that are being put in may well accommodate, I don’t know, something like four million people daily. But, there is an estimate that overall the capacity of the Beijing public transport network is about 19 million passengers a day and yet it’s being underutilized by about eight and a half million daily passengers. So, in other words, there’s a big opportunity to get more people out of their cars and onto public transport and that may be an opportunity, indeed, to actually reduce particle emissions.

The National Arena has been popularly dubbed the "Bird's Nest." (Photo: Flickr/Wolfiewolf)

CURWOOD: You know, it’s interesting you say that because we—a reporter who’s looked into this said that a lot of people complain that the public transport is overcrowded and it’s quite a scrum to get into them.

NUTTAL: Well, I mean, maybe it’s a question of the timing. Maybe they’re a scrum at rush hour whereas at the Olympics, for example, it may well be that events are going on all day and you can actually stagger in a sense the utilization of the network. I mean, that’s not unusual in many cities around the world where you get big pinpoints at rush hour.

Countdown clock to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games (Photo: Flickr/Gene Zhang)

CURWOOD: So, with all this environmental care in advance of the Olympic games, to what extent do you think Beijing will continue to enforce these environmental standards after the games are over and what about spreading them to other cities around China as well?

NUTTAL: Well, you know, China and the leadership right at the top of the Chinese government has made it abundantly clear in the last few years that they are extremely concerned about the economic costs of rising pollution in their country and they have set energy intensive targets for their industry, they’ve set renewable energy targets for their country, and I think the Olympic Games is a real opportunity for Beijing, but also for China generally, to become even more aware of the environmental challenge, of the climate challenge, of so many other similar related challenges, and also for millions of people around the world, sitting in living rooms in Boston, or in Berlin, or Bogota, or be aware of what’s happening to the planet right now and the absolute urgent need to move towards a more sufficient world, one that’s far less polluting. So, hopefully the games can act as a real catalyst for that, in China and beyond.

CURWOOD: Nick Nuttal is a spokesperson for the United Nations Environmental Programme in Nairobi. Thanks so much, Nick.

NUTTAL: Yep, thanks a lot.



For a link to the report on UNEP's Environmental Review of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games click here.

Beijing 2008 Olympic Games


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