Breathing in Beijing: Environmental Quality and the 2008 Summer Olympics

Watching the wonderful spectacle of the Olympics this year, one finds the world outside the sports arenas constantly intruding. Russia

Watching the wonderful spectacle of the Olympics this year, one finds the world outside the sports arenas constantly intruding. Russia manages to invade Georgia, human rights activists try to communicate their message to the world and oh yeah, breathing in Beijing remains a challenge. All of these issues are important, but as you might expect, I’m going to focus on breathing today.

I have the honor of participating in a program at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs where we provide management training for senior government officials from Guangdong Province in China. Guangdong is an industrial province with about 80 million residents and a large number of guest workers, and is at the heart of China’s massive effort to develop economically. During a recent discussion with my class, one of the students made the point that all nations that have developed an industrial base go through a period of intense pollution followed by the generation of sufficient wealth that permits a move to a cleaner style of development. This is of course true, although some argue that the United States, Europe and Japan simply exported their dirty industry to the developing world.

It seems to be the case that intense pollution is typical during the early stages of economic development. In the United States the air and water in many of our cities in the 1950’s and 1960’s was far worse than it is today. But this is the 21st century, and I think we are also starting to understand that in the long run you can’t trade off environmental quality for economic growth. Long term growth requires that we sustain the quality of our environment. The people running the Olympic games know that without breathable air, the games could not take place. Billions of dollars of investment would have gone down the drain.

In the case of China, the problem of pollution from economic development is one of scale. The pace and extent of China’s rapid development is unprecedented. The pollution loads are also unique. Since the 1980’s the United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars to clean up the mistakes of the mid-twentieth century and to try to prevent those mistakes in the future. The bill we are paying now in the United States will eventually come due in China as well. However in China the bill may end up being much higher– and some of the damage will be irreversible.

This leads to the issue of China’s environmental quality: In July, thousands of Chinese worked to clear algae from the Yellow Sea for the sailing races. Although Chinese officials said the algal bloom was caused by rainfall and warmer waters, the sea is contaminated with untreated sewage and agricultural and industrial runoff. Air quality has been a visible and embarrassing issue, with at least one athlete skipping the Olympics out of fear of harm. At the start of the games, four United States cyclists apologized after arriving at the airport with masks on. Someone must have mentioned that they had inadvertently insulted their hosts. So much for international diplomacy….

In anticipation of the Olympics, the Chinese government invested over $20 billion to improve environmental quality in Beijing, and over the past year, officials reported that the air has been either "fair" or "good" 70 percent of the time. After watching the opening ceremonies it is easy to see how important this event is to China’s government and its people. This is a national celebration of unprecedented proportions. As visible air pollution persisted in the weeks before the Olympics, China took additional measures to improve the air. Cars were only allowed on the road every other day, based on an even-odd license plate rule, and the city halted construction and temporarily closed factories. Air quality has improved, and the head of the International Olympic Committee has said that China has done "everything that is feasible and humanly possible to address this situation", that, "What they have done is extraordinary," and that there is "absolutely no danger" to the health of athletes participating in events shorter than one hour. Endurance events might be postponed if pollution is bad.

As a New Yorker, I wondered how our air compares to the air that our Olympic athletes are breathing in China. The air here is better than it once was, but still far from perfect. In New York City, from April 19th to August 1st of this year, New York City had 16 non-attainment days for ozone (roughly 15%). As of June 2nd, parts of New York City had persistently exceeded the national ambient air quality standards for particulates (PM2.5), ozone, and even, at least in some places, larger piece of soot known as particulate matter 10.

While the Chinese government believed that Beijing’s air quality would be above World Health Organization standards during the Olympics, the day before the games, the British Broadcasting Company reported that particulate matter 10 registered at "191 micrograms per cubic metre. This far exceeds the World Health Organization target of 50 micrograms/cubic metre, and also exceeds the target for developing countries of 150 micrograms/cubic metre."

While assessing the presence of large particulates may not be the best way to compare the air in both cities, we do have data on the soot in both cities and can compare the two. Particulate matter size 10 (measured in micrograms per cubic meter) was recorded in New York City and Beijing on the first few days of the 2008 Olympics: On Friday, August 8: Beijing was 156 with New York City at 11.8; Saturday, August 9, Beijing was 110, New York, 12.1, Sunday August 10, Beijing was 278 and New York City, 19.0. You get the idea: The World Health Organization standard for these particulates is 50-New York always met the standard, Beijing never did.

It is clear that the organizers of this year’s Summer Olympic Games understood that the success of Beijing’s games was closely connected to the quality of the local environment. Cities around the world are learning that in addition to great restaurants, exciting night life and meaningful cultural opportunities, both residents and visitors expect cities to provide the air needed to breath.

I am grateful for the research assistance of Rachel Dannefer, Masters Student, Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Breathing in Beijing: Environmental Quality and the 2008 Summer Olympics