Beijing pulls out all the stops to reduce smog for Olympics


CHINA:THIS WEEKEND sees a major push by the Beijing Olympic organisers to clear the smog obscuring the city's state-of-the-art Olympic venues with the introduction tomorrow of a ban on private cars on alternate days, based on odd-even number plates, writes Clifford Coonan.

City officials have been irked by a raft of criticism over Beijing's failure so far to meet its Olympic clean-air promises and they are taking no chances. They have no option but to cut back on the number of cars on the streets - Beijing has over three million cars with 1,000 new cars joining that number every week.

The "Bird's Nest" Olympic stadium and the futuristic Water Cube may look fantastic and ready to roll, but you need to get up close to see them through the yellow-tinged smog, which was back after a couple of clear days last week. The hugely embarrassing prospect of athletes wearing face masks to compete is no longer as ridiculous as it sounds.

A test-run of the system was moderately successful last year. By the side of major thoroughfares you can see over 10,000 "smart devices", including cameras and special scanners, that can identify if people are cheating by driving their odd-numbered plate on days where only even numbers are allowed, for example.

The offending motorists can be fined 100 yuan (around €9), which is a hefty whack in China, although the huge swell of pride in China about the games means they are more at risk of punishment from their fellow citizens.

All civil servants and people working for state-owned enterprises will have their working hours adjusted from July 20th until September 20th to make sure traffic jams do not spoil the Olympics.

State-owned companies will work from 9am to 5pm, while shopping malls will open at 10am and stay open later in the evening. Other companies can open from 9.30am. And civil servants have been told to be flexible and do as much work online as they can.

Keeping heavy trucks off the road should also be a help, while the heavier polluting factories in four provinces, and the giant Capital Steel steelworks, are silent until after the games and the Paralympics. In a sign of just how seriously this is being taken, China is ramping up steel imports to fill the shortfall in output this is causing, estimated at 12 per cent of the country's monthly steel production.

Another option open to the Chinese is cloud seeding. The weather bureau will use rockets containing silver iodine and dry ice.

These will be fired high into the atmosphere at rain-heavy clouds, either from planes, or by rockets, or by artillery, and act as a catalyst, forcing the rain clouds to burst hours before the athletes tog out. The rain could be brought on hours before the opening ceremony to clear any smog in the streets.

Weather patterns for the past 30 years indicate a 50 per cent chance of rain for both the opening ceremony and the closing ceremony two weeks later.

Beijing's Olympic organisers are adamant everything will be all right on the night of the opening ceremony. They say that all the measures they have taken to combat pollution will have ensured clean air for the athletes and the 3.5 million visitors expected in the city.

Beijing is one of the world's dirtiest cities, choked with smog that is often two or three times the maximum allowed by the World Health Organisation.

And fighting pollution is taking on the aspect of a national campaign against smog, with everyone being encouraged to do their civic duty to make sure the air is pristine for the games. This is something the Communist Party is very good at - they've done it before for big events like party congresses and anniversary marches.

Wags are even saying the government will build huge fans in the Perfumed Hills to blow away the smog if worst comes to worst. And it's not all bad news. Workers have managed to clear the smelly green algae clogging the Olympic sailing port of Qingdao.