23 July 2008

Clean Air Requires More Than Olympic Effort

(From Sinotaneous)

Chinese authorities have busied themselves the last couple of weeks in a last-ditch effort to clean up Beijing's foul air. Factories are shut down temporarily. Cars are taken off the roads. Even smoking is now banned in many places.

The result is somewhat improved air quality. But to be fair, Beijing, usually under the overhang of a gray sky, is geographically challenged. Ringed by mountains on three sides and surrounded by industrial plants in nearby cities and provinces, polluted air tends to drift toward Beijing and make itself home.

All that central planning might buy Beijing enough tolerable breathing space to get through the Olympics. But if the Chinese government is actually serious about improving Beijing's nasty air -- instead of just putting on a show -- a more sustained effort is required.

It can be done, though.

Taipei, the city where I was born and raised in and lived until my teenage years, has some of the same geographical handicaps that trouble Beijing. A land-locked basin with hills on all sides, Taipei was an air-pollution death trap. Indeed, my childhood memories were filled with gray skies and lung-busting bad air.

But things have changed quite dramatically over the past decade or so. Much to my amazement, Taipei is now one of the greenest cities in Asia. On a recent trip to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, about the only place that didn't cause me to suffer an episodic coughing spell was Taipei.

And just to make sure I wasn't hallucinating, it's comforting to know other people were thinking of the same thing.

Beijing can learn much from Taipei's transformation. And in some ways, it's taking the same steps. The mass-transit projects, many of them completed recently, will help. Newly imposed environmental requirements for factories should have an impact, too.

But more important, this has to be more than just a quick-fix. Maybe Beijing's citizens will like what they're breathing now and do their part to mitigate air pollution. The government, meanwhile, has to decide whether it was making an investment in the future or merely paying hush money to get through the day.

I guess we'll find out in the next decade or so.

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