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Home    |   Currents   |   China’s Environment After the Olympics

China’s Environment After the Olympics

Oct 30, 2008

InternationalWaste & Pollution

Lo Sze Ping *

I. Introduction

China’s economy is the fastest growing in the world. Official Chinese government figures, from the National Bureau of Statistics, indicate that China’s economy grew 11.9 percent in 2007, the fastest rate of growth in more than a decade.[1] However, nearly thirty years of rapid economic growth coupled with a “pollute first, clean up later” mentality has devastated China’s environment.

As a nation of over 1.3 billion people, China faces some of the world’s greatest environmental challenges. Some 400 cities in China face severe water shortages,[2] and seventy percent of China’s rivers are polluted.[3] As one of the world’s largest green house gas (GHG) emitters, China was responsible for an estimated 6,200 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2006 from fossil fuel combustion and cement production alone.[4] That represents a nine percent emissions increase over the previous year,[5] and is primarily due to the country’s reliance on coal as its main energy source.[6] As a result, pollution levels in Chinese cities often pose an enormous health risk to citizens. Because of China’s position as a developing nation with growing energy and resource needs, few nations have a more important role to play in making the urgent transition to sustainable development.

With a population of over 16 million people, Beijing struggles with its own environmental problems. According to a World Bank report, Beijing ranked as the 13th most polluted city in the world in 2004.[7] An explosive increase in car ownership is blamed for a sharp rise in unhealthy emissions. Around 120,000 cars were added to Beijing’s roads in the first quarter of 2008, and around 1,300 vehicles are currently being added to Beijing’s roads every day.[8] According to the European Space Agency, Beijing and its neighboring northeastern Chinese provinces have the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide on the planet.[9] Located inland on a dry plateau in China’s northeast region, Beijing is a city that struggles with severe water shortages. Beijing’s water availability per capita is just 1/32 of the international average.[10]

The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games were the first time a developing country hosted the Games, and China placed sustainability and environmental initiatives at the forefront of its efforts to host the Olympics. Beijing has come a long way, and its efforts and achievements must not be underestimated. Nevertheless, Beijing also missed some opportunities to use the Games to implement the world’s best environmental practices and technologies. Many environmental problems in Beijing are similar to those of other Chinese cities and, as China urbanizes, the lessons learned in the Beijing Olympics are vital for China to build sustainable cities beyond 2008.

When Beijing won the bid to host the Olympics in 2008, many thought the international event presented unique environmental challenges and opportunities for the city. Beijing’s original bid offered the world high expectations and the environment figured prominently in Beijing’s original bid, planning, and preparation for the 2008 Olympics. The “Green Olympics” was one of three main themes of the 2008 Games, and Beijing’s action plan set aside investment for green initiatives: 5.6 billion USD for the period of 1998-2002 and 6.6 billion USD for the period of 2003-2007.[11] From 1998-2007, Beijing spent a total of 120 billion RMB (15.7 billion USD) on environmental initiatives.[12]

Did massive investment lead to massive progress? As a Beijing resident, I certainly noticed the improvements. With more heavy-polluters relocated and upgraded, more coal-burning boilers converted to use cleaner energy, and raised vehicle emission standards, Beijing’s measures in the last decade indeed brought about apparent change to the city’s environment. The sky became bluer and clearer as the Games approached and thanks to four new subway lines, there are now alternatives to traveling across the traffic-jammed city. But what about the less noticeable changes?

Greenpeace recently completed an independent assessment of the environmental initiatives of Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Games. Overall, Greenpeace believes that the environmental efforts by the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad (BOCOG) and the Beijing municipal government have created a positive legacy for the city of Beijing.[13] Beijing did more than Athens and should be commended for its efforts in using the Games as an opportunity to upgrade and improve city infrastructure as well as to integrate leading energy saving technologies in Games venues. Many of Beijing’s environmental initiatives have set a good example for other Chinese cities to follow. However, Beijing has also missed key opportunities to promote some environmental initiatives. In part due to inadequate transparency and engagement with third party stakeholders, Beijing’s green Games efforts do not meet the comprehensive approach of the Sydney Government before and during the 2000 Games.

II. Environmental initiatives that will leave an important legacy for Beijing.

In preparation for the '08 Games, Beijing invested heavily in strategies aimed at reducing vehicle emissions. For example, to improve infrastructure, Beijing added four new rail lines for the city, increasing Beijing’s total subway capacity from 1.3 million passengers a day in 2000 to 3.9 million in 2008.[14] Public ground transportation reached a total capacity of 19 million passengers per day.[15] By 2006 Beijing had added 3,795 compressed natural gas (CNG) buses to its operation and now boasts one of the largest CNG bus fleets in the world.[16] From 2001 to 2006, Beijing replaced or refitted more than 47,000 old taxis and 7,000 old diesel buses.[17] To reduce automobile emissions and improve air quality, Beijing also increased its new vehicle emissions standards to EURO IV ahead of schedule for the Games.[18] The EURO IV standards are among the most stringent emissions standards in the world.

Water conservation and reuse is particularly important for Beijing considering the city’s dependency on water diversion and groundwater. The city’s waste treatment capacities greatly increased as Beijing drastically improved its sewage and wastewater treatment plants and water reuse systems. Beijing benefited from some 480 million m3 of recycled water in 2007—about fourteen percent of total water consumed in Beijing that year—and city-wide initiatives should increase that quantity to 600 million m3 in 2008.[19] Between 2000 and 2006, the city built seventeen new wastewater treatment plants in Beijing, increasing total capacity to 2.5 million m3 per day.[20] The central government also closed down heavily polluting enterprises in the catchment area close to the Guanting reservoir—Beijing’s second largest—to guarantee the quality of the city’s water supply.[21]

In anticipation of the Olympics, Beijing made great strides to develop renewable energy and reduce its dependence on coal. The city built its first wind power station for the Olympic Games. It is capable of generating 100 million kilowatt-hours of electricity a year—enough to meet the annual needs of 100,000 families.[22] Green energy accounts for 20% of total energy used in all the Olympics venues: along with the addition of solar water heaters, solar PV systems, and geothermal equipment, the introduction of renewable energy into the city’s grid represents a welcome signal for Beijing to continue to reform its energy structure and move ahead, away from coal, towards a more ambitious adoption of renewable energy.

In order to move away from coal-fired boiler technology, by 2007, the city’s 16,000 industrial boilers under twenty tons and 44,000 boilers under one ton had been upgraded.[23] Pollution from household coal heating systems is no longer a headache for many Beijing residents, thanks to a plan that converted 32,000 household heating systems from household coal heating to electricity.[24]

Beginning June 1st, 2008, China banned all shops and grocery stores from providing free plastic bags to customers as a first step to eliminating white pollution in the country. This nationwide policy is an important step to reduce packaging and to cut back on the over 3 billion plastic bags used by shoppers in China each day.[25]

To ensure a Green Olympic Games, Beijing also implemented some short-term measures, including removing half of the vehicles from the roads, closing down all construction, and closing some industries in neighboring cities and provinces. The temporary nature of these measures means the effects, if any, would only be temporary. However, after experiencing two months of a cleaner city with cleaner air, Beijing will only be able to move forward. At a press conference on Aug 20th, the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau expressed its determination to completely close down heavy polluters and to tighten controls over car emissions after the Olympic Games.

III. Missed Opportunities

In its preparation for the Games, Beijing also missed several opportunities for environmental reform.

First, the city could have taken further steps to improve air quality. While it shut down some industries during the Games, Beijing could have also adopted clean production measures more widely across the municipality to speed up the air quality improvements and to ensure that the city continues to meet standards year-round. Because Beijing relocated heavily polluting factories to nearby provinces, these factories should be closely monitored to ensure that they do not receive a free pass to pollute. Because the rapid growth in private vehicle ownership has contributed so much to Beijing’s air quality problems, the city could have taken more aggressive measures to curb its swiftly increasing car ownership rate. Also, Beijing could have taken more opportunities to promote alternative forms of transportation by developing bicycle lanes in major planning projects. Finally, while the 2008 Games were in large part ozone-friendly, Olympic venues continued to rely heavily on climate-damaging HFC technology, thereby missing an opportunity to leap directly from ozone-depleting to climate-friendly natural refrigeration.

Second, while innovative water reuse technologies and renewable energy technology were installed in Olympic venues, more could have been done to incorporate these technologies more broadly into the city’s infrastructure. Beijing should also re-evaluate the region’s long-term water strategies to ensure that attempts to supply China’s urban centers through long-distance water diversion projects will not affect access to water for rural areas, agricultural uses, water safety and security for future generations.

In terms of waste management, the Games should have been an opportunity to speed up the development of a zero-waste strategy. Unfortunately, the development of more landfills and incinerators represents a failure on this account. Incinerators will likely release harmful chemicals into the atmosphere, including cancer-inducing dioxins. In China’s rapidly developing economy and urbanizing cities, it is essential to promote re-use and recycling strategies. Public engagement programs before the Games could have helped to boost awareness for waste reduction.

Finally, although BOCOG introduced environmental guidelines for Olympic timber purchasing, they missed a chance to promote an internationally recognizable timber procurement policy—such as Forest Stewardship Council Standards—for construction material used during the Games. In this way Beijing missed an opportunity to guide the municipal and national government in establishing a more stringent set of wood purchasing standards. While Beijing did make commendable efforts to “green” the city and provide a more livable urban space through reforestation projects, this does not substitute for policies that conserve ancient forests and complex ecological systems.

IV. Lessons Learned from the Games

Beijing’s tremendous efforts and investment in environmental initiatives for the 2008 Games have helped it to meet many of the city’s bid commitments. The long-term environmental initiatives will leave an important legacy for Beijing in areas such as transportation infrastructure, energy efficiency, and in the development of renewable energy, water, and waste treatment capacities. Yet, Beijing has missed key opportunities to promote other environmental initiatives that could have greatly benefited the city. Although Beijing’s current efforts to develop mass transportation and to implement various environmental regulations and policies are encouraging, it is imperative that other Chinese cities, which will undergo similar types of transformation over the next twenty years, learn from Beijing’s achievements and mistakes. The successful environmental initiatives to improve air quality, to speed up the development of renewable energy, and to encourage the move towards sustainable development in Beijing, can serve as an excellent case study for other Chinese cities attempting to balance environmental sustainability and rapid development.

The next question is will China learn from the lessons of Beijing? In some respects things look promising. In March, 2008, the State Council announced the promotion of the State Environmental Protection Bureau to cabinet ministerial level: the Ministry of Environmental Protection. It was a long-awaited change. China has struggled to enforce its environmental policies and regulations for many reasons. First, environmental issues often cut across the regulatory domain of many ministries, making coordination difficult. Second, environmental protection is given low priority: factories are often built without going through required environmental assessments; pollution remains unchecked because law enforcers’ pay checks come from the local government; and local officials sacrifice environmental protection for economic growth which is viewed as a step towards promotion.

The new Ministry will have input in strategic decisions made at the cabinet level. However, it is unclear whether or not the promotion will provide ‘real teeth’ to enforce China’s environmental regulations and to counter the vested interests of growth-at-all-cost. The Ministry needs to expand its regulatory domain, to initiate direct management of local environment agencies, and to include environmental criteria in the performance evaluation system of local officials.

Most importantly, China needs to empower, encourage and mobilize its people to become more environmentally active and help to monitor polluters and environment law enforcement.

It is easy to pollute but much harder to clean up the damage. China must immediately reverse the current growth model of “develop first and clean up later,” which it has been pursuing in the past thirty years and which has been one of the fundamental causes for the country’s environment degradation. China cannot afford to wait and propel its growth at the costs of its environment, its people’s health and ultimately its real future.

* Lo Sze Ping is the Campaign Director for Greenpeace China.

[1] Sun Yunlong, China Revises 2007 GDP Growth Upward to 11.9%, China View, Apr. 10, 2008.

[2] Inefficiency Aggravates China's Water Shortage, People’s Daily Online, Nov. 22, 2006.

[3] The Worldwatch Institute, State of the World 2006: Special Focus: China and India (Linda Starke ed., Norton and Company 2006).

[4] China Now No. 1 in CO2 Emissions; USA in Second Position, Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, July 24, 2008,

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Beijing Pollution: Facts and Figures, BBC, Aug. 11, 2008.

[8] Wang Hongjiang, Beijing's Vehicle Population Up 13% in 1st Quarter, China View, Apr. 2, 2008.

[9] Jonathan Watts, Satellite Data Reveals Beijing as Air Pollution Capital of the World, The Guardian, Oct. 31, 2005, at 22.

[10] Li Jing, Project to Increase Beijing's Water Supply, China Daily, Aug. 19, 2004.

[11] UNEP, Beijing 2008 Olympic Games: An Environmental Review 26 (2008).

[12] The Official Website of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing Puts In Big Money to Improve the Environment, May 31, 2007 (Both figures in RMB and USD are provided by BOCOG).

[13] Greenpeace acknowledges that the lack of available independently verified data and limited ability for third parties such as NGOs to access information undermines the ability to evaluate Beijing’s environmental performance.

[14] UNEP, Beijing 2008 Olympic Games: An Environmental Review 101 (2008).

[15] Id. at 102.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id. at 96.

[19] The Official Website of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing Benefits from Recycled Water, Mar. 28, 2007.

[20] UNEP, supra note 11, at 125.

[21] Id. at 120.

[22] An Lu, 20% of Power Supply for Beijing's Olympic Venues to be Wind-Generated, China View, Jul. 20, 2008.

[23] Wang Hongjiang, Beijing Promotes "Clean Energy" in Heating Season to Improve Air Quality, China View, Nov. 15, 2007.

[24] Press Release, The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad (BOCOG), Press Conference on Beijing's Preparation for Energy Saving and Emission Reduction in the Build up for the Olympic Games (Jul. 10, 2008).

[25] Guo Shipeng & Emma Graham-Harrison, China Launches Surprise Crackdown on Plastic Bags, Reuters, Jan 8, 2008.

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