Pre-Olympic car ban improved air |

Pre-Olympic car ban improved air

Anita Chang
Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado
Andy Wong/APMotorists stuck on a traffic jam on a major highway in Beijing Tuesday.

BEIJING ” A test run of traffic controls to clear Beijing’s smoggy skies for next summer’s Olympics successfully improved air quality, state media reported Tuesday, saying conditions were “fairly good” despite a constant gray haze.

Air pollution has emerged as a key problem for Beijing as it gears up for the Olympics, to be held Aug. 8-24, 2008. International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge warned during a visit earlier this month that some competitions might be postponed if the city did not clean up its air.

Conditions were “fairly good” during the four-day trial that ended Monday, the official Xinhua News Agency said. The state-run Beijing Daily gushed that the traffic controls “brought Beijing four days of precious blue skies.”

In fact, a stubborn gray haze shrouded Beijing throughout the test period and the government’s own statistics showed that the air quality during the four days rated among the top 10 worst days of the month so far ” and slightly worse than the same period a year ago.

The city environmental bureau acknowledged on its Web site that high humidity during the test trapped the pollution and there were no strong winds to blow it away.

“It should be affirmed that the ban of vehicles has improved the city’s air quality,” Zhao Yue, a senior engineer with the Beijing Environment Protection Monitoring Center, was quoted as saying by Xinhua.

The traffic ban removed 1.3 million private vehicles from the capital’s perpetually gridlocked streets each day. Additional buses and subways were added as residents used public transportation, car pools and taxis for their commutes.

Cars with even-numbered license plates were ordered off roads Friday and Sunday, and vehicles with odd-numbered plates were banned Saturday and Monday. Emergency vehicles, taxis, buses and other public-service vehicles were exempt.

Beijing had an air pollution index of between 93 and 95 during the test days, the city’s environmental protection bureau said on its Web site. According to the State Environmental Protection Agency, an index below 100 indicates excellent or good conditions.

The index hit 116 Tuesday following the test and was 115 on Aug. 16, the day before the trial began, SEPA statistics showed.

A reading of between 101 to 200 indicates slight pollution and people with heart and respiratory conditions are told to avoid exertion and outdoor activities.

Earlier in the month, the pollution index had dipped as low as 42 and generally hovered in the 70s or 80s during the first two weeks of the month.

Beijing residents praised the traffic controls, saying they were necessary for easing gridlock.

“I thought it was very good. There was an immediate effect on the traffic,” said a woman surnamed Li, who usually drives two or three times a week.

A cab driver, who only gave his surname Wang, said his business did not increase significantly but thinks the controls should be in place beyond the Olympics.

“I think it’s good to regulate by license plate number. I think they should do it long-term, so there’s no congestion. For me, I’d save a lot in gas money,” he said.

The Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau referred questions to its Web site and did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment. Telephones at the Beijing Olympics organizing committee rang unanswered.

Traffic controls are just one way Beijing Olympic organizers have tried to clear the skies. Officials have spent billions of dollars closing factories and moving others out of town. Frenzied, around-the-clock construction to modernize the capital will be curtailed ahead of the games.

Beijing is particularly focused on combating particle pollution, which can cause breathing problems and reduced visibility. That pollution is caused by emissions from power plants, diesel engines and wind-blown dust. High ozone levels, which occur on sunny days when nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons emitted by cars, power plants and factories react in the air, are also a problem.

China’s environmental watchdog said emissions of a key air pollutant fell slightly in the first half of the year in the country as a whole, but water quality worsened.

The State Environmental Protection Agency said that brisk economic growth and inadequate enforcement of environmental regulations were to blame for the “many outstanding challenges” hampering efforts to cut the country’s air and water pollution.

In the first half of this year, the total national emissions of sulfur dioxide totaled 12.634 million tons, a decline of 0.88 percent compared with the same period last year, the agency said in a statement.

Chemical oxygen demand, a water pollution index, rose by 0.24 percent over the same period in 2006, the agency said.

“We made some progress in our emissions control work, however, the situation is still grim,” the agency said.

China has some of the most polluted cities in the world after two decades of breakneck economic growth, and the government has been losing ground in recent years in trying to balance environmental concerns with economic growth.

China had set a goal of cutting the emission of major pollutants by 10 percent in the five years to 2010. Last year, it failed to reduce the two main pollutants by 2 percent. Sulfur dioxide emissions increased 1.8 percent and chemical oxygen demand rose 1.2 percent in 2006 compared to the previous year.

Sulfur dioxide emissions are chiefly caused by burning coal, and China is already the world’s largest producer and consumer of the resource.

In other Olympics developments, senior Chinese police officials have warned of hijack threats during the games as air traffic volumes swell, the state-run China Daily reported Tuesday.

“Our efforts to prevent hijacking, as part of the security for the Olympics, face a severe test,” Wang Changshun, vice minister of the General Administration of Civil Aviation, was quoted as saying in the newspaper.

Wang said the volume of air traffic at China’s main airports is expected to increase by 50 percent during the games. Beijing’s airport is opening a new terminal to handle some of the increase, but has also ordered domestic carriers to reduce numbers of flights to the capital.

“At present, China’s anti-hijacking work is facing a series of new challenges,” Zhang Xinfeng, vice minister of public security, was quoted as saying.

“Some international terrorist organizations are increasing their infiltration into China and civil aviation planes could be the target of a terrorist attack,” he said.

He did not give details.

An anti-hijacking drill was held Monday in the port city of Dalian in Liaoning province. It consisted of a simulated raid on hijackers and rescue operations for passengers held hostage, as well as a firefighting operation for a plane that burst into flames upon landing, Xinhua said.

It said more than 600 civil aviation, public security and firefighting officers took part in the drill, watched by Vice Premier Zeng Peiyan.

China suffered a string of hijackings between 1993 and 1998, but the hijackers were all trying to flee to Taiwan.

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