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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Beijing has some of the worst pollution in the world, but it's getting better. A campaign launched by the Chinese government a few years ago to clean up its capital is already beginning to pay some dividends. And now the cleanup has received another boost. Beijing wants to host the 2008 Olympic Games, and that has led to a blitz of environmental efforts. NPR's Rob Gifford reports.
(Street sounds. A horn blares.)
GIFFORD: Taxi driver Wang Guoxing is not a happy man. As he weaves through Beijing's crowded streets, he peers out at the smog that envelops his car.
WANG: When I was a boy, I could look at a star at night, and the blue sky in the daytime. But now, it's difficult because of air pollution.
(Another taxi toots.)
GIFFORD: Wang is a typical Beijinger. He's proud of the modernization of his city that's taken place since Chairman Mao died, 25 years ago. But he can live without the accompanying pollution. However, in the last year or so, he says he's noticed an improvement.
WANG: I know government has been taking many, many measures. First, stop burning coal, especially in the kitchen. (Another horn blast.) Secondly, taxi drivers and other cars' drivers must use lead-free gasoline.
GIFFORD: Researchers have also noticed a difference. Recent data compiled by the U.S. Department of Energy show that carbon dioxide levels in China have been reduced by 17% since the mid-90s. That figure is staggering, considering China's gross domestic product grew by 36% over the same period. But still, concerns about pollution persist, and some see it as more of a danger to Beijing's front- runner status as host for the 2008 Summer Olympics, than the criticism of China's human rights record. The Beijing bid committee knows it has a problem. Deputy director Wang Wei says the government has made it a number one priority to meet the air quality standards of the World Health Organization, or WHO.
WANG WEI: We have an investment of about 12 billion U.S. dollars input in this program. The air quality has seen a drastic improvement already. In August, the weather in Beijing is almost perfect. Our specialists have a chart to show during that period the air quality in Beijing will surpass the standard set by the WHO.
GIFFORD: Wang and his committee encouraged the Beijing government to not only reduce coal burning in the city, but also to order that all cars now sold must meet European environmental standards. According to the Beijing Olympic Committee, car emissions have been reduced by more than 20% in the last three years. The sewer system has been updated. Tens of thousands of trees have been planted, and if Beijing gets the nod for the 2008 Games, older neighborhoods will be knocked down, the residents moved to the suburbs, and whole swaths of green parkland area created in the heart of the city. Perhaps most importantly, some of the city's biggest polluting factories are being relocated to the very outskirts of Beijing. New factories in the city are equipped with state-of-the-art equipment.
GIFFORD: The Olympic Committee is hoping that more factories can be like the Beijing Cement Works, the biggest cement factory in the capital. Plant manager Yang Shenglin takes vistors on a tour of the factory, and points proudly to the main smokestack, which, unlike most others in the city, has no smoke belching from the top.
YANG: (Speaking Chinese).
GIFFORD: There are some waste gases coming out of there, he says, but you can't see them. While older factories in Beijing pump out about 300 tons of dust per day, the Beijing Cement Works uses the latest American technology, and produces no dust at all. Nor does it produce any solid waste, and all its water is recycled.
GIFFORD: Yang points proudly to the greeness of the factory area. "Look how clean the leaves on the trees are," he says.
SHEN XIN-GEN: (Speaking in Chinese).
GIFFORD: Yang's boss, Shen Xin-gen, says the plant, built in the mid-90s, is all part of a move to cleaner air, and that the bid for the 2008 Olympics has been a major boost.
SHEN XIN-GEN: (Speaking in Chinese).
TRANSLATOR: Of course, everybody cares about Beijing bidding for the Olympics. So bidding has become a motivation for workers and citizens to take even better care of the environment. We should strive to meet international standards.
GIFFORD: But for every modernized factory in the capital, there are hundreds in China's hinterland, where the Olympic spotlight never shines. The equipment for this plant cost $150,000 U.S. dollars, which is money that most don't have. Many Beijingers are fanatical about the Olympic bid. For the emergent China, winning the Olympics would be like a symbol of acceptance by the international community. But for taxi driver Wang Guoxing, the bid is part of a much bigger picture, and he hopes the cleanup goes on, whether Beijing wins or not
WANG: Taking these measures for controlling air pollution, not only important for Olympic bid, but also good for the future of our life in Beijing.
GIFFORD: The International Olympic Committee will choose a host city for 2008 in Moscow, on July 13th. The other candidates are Paris, Toronto, Istanbul, and Osaka. For Living on Earth, I'm Rob Gifford, in Beijing.