The Olympics: Green or Brown?

Beijing’s pollution isn’t a secret. But as part of its bid to secure the Olympic contract, the world’s 13th filthiest city (according to a World Bank study) embarked on a massive cleanup to improve air quality, sanitize drinking water and purify the rivers in time for the games, which began on Thursday. New sports stadiums were built with solar power and other energy-saving technologies, while new public transit systems were introduced to the streets. But can Beijing really claim this summer’s games are green?

The Olympics: Green or Brown?


Green: Beijing authorities have claimed five straight years of air-quality improvement since 2002. Last year, Beijing’s average daily Air Pollution Index was 100.69. Hoping to keep the reading below that Index for the duration of the games, Beijing has spent billions to close factories, stop construction and pull millions of cars off the roads each day in the last couple of weeks.


Brown: A National Resources Defense Council analyst recently questioned Beijing’s five-year record, noting that two of seven air-quality monitoring devices were moved to less polluted locales in the city, and less stringent standards were set for the most hazardous particulate matters. What’s more, an air pollution score under 100–a “blue sky” day in Beijing parlance–isn’t the World Health Organization’s definition of healthy air, nor likely the average tourist’s. The Friday before last, for instance, was a relatively good day in Beijing, with a pollution score of 69. But compare that against a random selection of other cities–New York (16), London (22), Tokyo (20) and even America’s smog capital, Los Angeles (30), and it’s no wonder why a white mask is a regular accessory in Beijing.


Green: In preparation for the Olympics, Chinese authorities announced that Beijing was the first city in the country with potable water, after passing 106 cleanliness tests devised by the Chinese government.

Brown: Secondary pollution from the city’s old pipes means the water often has a strong metallic taste, residents complain. While officials have assured visitors that drinking water in the Olympic Village will be safe, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges Americans not to drink any water in China–unless it’s been bottled, canned or boiled. And watch those water coolers–last year, half of them were found filled with tap water or from unregulated mom-and-pop suppliers–and then labeled with bogus safety seals.


Green: A number of facilities built for the Olympics were designed with water-saving technology, like the new swimming pool–The Water Cube–collects rainwater from the roof to water trees, flush toilets and clean garages on the ground. Even the new toilets in Olympic Forest Park are designed to separate human waste into water and fertilizer for agricultural use.

Brown: Collecting rainwater and turning flushables into fertilizer is all good, but hardly enough to compensate for the Olympics’ drain on China’s already scarce water reserves. Beijing’s chronic draught is so bad–water availability per capita is among the lowest in the world–that four reservoirs were built specifically to reroute water for the Olympics from nearby Hebei province, which doesn’t have much to begin with. To cope with the water loss, farmers in Hebei were promised cash payouts of $30 and urged to abandon their more lucrative rice and vegetable crops in favor of corn, which requires less irrigation.


Green: Chinese authorities have been touting their success at cleaning up the country’s notoriously noxious rivers–and note that the Qinghe River near Olympic Park has seen pollution drop by two thirds since 2004.


Brown: That’s a drop in a toxin-filled bucket. More than 70 percent of the rivers in China are polluted, according to the World Health Organization. The Yangtze and Pearl Rivers are so contaminated their estuaries have been deemed “dead zones” for marine life. Massive chemical spills into China’s rivers are practically an annual tradition. Just last February, authorities had to cut water supplies to 200,000 people after the Han River (a branch of the Yangtze) turned red and foamy, with elevated levels of ammonia, among other industrial chemicals.


Green: Beijing replaced 7,000 diesel buses with a fleet of 3,800 compressed natural gas buses, which have lower emissions. Just in time for the games, the city has also built four new subway lines, and stricter emissions standards for its cars.

Brown: The city still manages to add 1,300 new cars each day to its streets, according to the China Daily.


Green: The Chinese science and technology minister vows that the Olympics will be “basically” carbon neutral. Though the games are expected to create some 1.18 tons of carbon, solar power and newly planted trees would offset 1 to 1.29 million tons of carbon, he said.

Brown: But how about that torch? By one estimate, the iconic flame’s four-month global relay will send more carbon into the atmosphere than 153 Americans in an entire year.