Sustainability


Olympic volunteers
Olympic volunteers have shown up in booths all over the city

To all the naysayers about the air quality in Beijing for the Olympics, all I can say is that if the games were held right now, the weather would be incredible. Yesterday was one of the finest days I’ve ever enjoyed in Beijing with wonderfully clear air and great visibility. I could see both the western and northern mountain ranges with amazing clarity! I spent the day running errands all over town and therefore found myself riding my motorbike for a goodly portion of the day. The temperature was perfect!! The air quality index was “Excellent” at 27, the best I have ever seen. Today was also a glorious day, but HOT!

Beijing air quality is excellent!

When it comes to air quality in Beijing for the Olympics, there have been quite a few naysayers indeed. It seems many in the western press were publishing pictures of last week’s hazy days as evidence of poor air quality, failing to mention that there was quite a bit of sporadic precipitation that had evaporated into the air to make the haze. The Beijing government was quick to point out that haze is a natural phenomenon common throughout China. I am with the Beijing government on this one. There is a big difference between haze and smog, and anyone buzzing around town on two wheels can certainly tell the difference! China has always been hazy, as anyone who has ever seen a Chinese painting should be able to discern. Where does all that mystical mist come from in those beautiful paintings? Smog? In the Tang Dynasty? I don’t think so. I may be the first to voice my cynicism when certain negativities are downplayed, but I must say that the air quality this past week has really, really improved, no doubt largely in part the vastly reduced number of vehicles on the streets. I hope that after the games are over they keep the regulations in place limiting access to Beijing roads by even or odd numbered plates only able to drive on even or odd days. Of course, the over 300,000 vehicles from state-owned enterprises that have been restricted throughout the games will most likely hit the streets again when they end. No matter. I am truly enjoying the fresh air while it lasts.

Other signs that Beijing is fully prepared for the games:

1. Security measures have become routine. I went to an opera (Tea: A Mirror of Soul) at the National Center for Performing Arts and did not feel entirely put out by the security search to enter the massive hall. People have grown accustomed to these measures, and some efficiencies have been developed by those carrying out the searches.
2. Hordes of volunteers have emerged. Having served as an Olympic and Paralympic volunteer myself during the Salt Lake games, I know a thing or two about the procedures and organizational structure, and I can attest to the fact that Beijing has a definite advantage – neighborhood committees!

Neighborhood Olympic volunteers
Neighborhood Olympic volunteers on every street corner and even in between… one under every umbrella!

Everyone in China is organized into groups, traditionally according to work place or school. Housing has also traditionally been assigned by the company, though that is rapidly changing. As everyone is assigned to unit, each unit has a committee and each neighborhood has an organized “neighborhood watch” committee, who are basically retired people who sit around and spy on everyone going in and out of the community. They are actually empowered to do so by the local communist party! This level of organization comes in handy from time to time, especially when the government wants to implement an information campaign. Now, the red arm bands have been replaced with red and white volunteer outfits and you can literally find them on every street corner throughout the city. Wow!

Neighborhood Olympic volunteers
Neighborhood Olympic volunteer

3. An even more amazing display of flowers on the street than usual. I’m always amazed how the flower displays get more and more impressive every year around National Day, but this year they have pulled the stops to put up impressive flower stands along side of all the major roads and in many neighborhoods.
4. Cosmetic surgery to all of the older building fronts was completed in a timely fashion. If you are one of the lucky few able to visit Beijing for the games, you will notice that nearly every building has the same matte silver tile surface and brand new signage, thanks to a beautification plan that was implemented on a massive scale that can only happen in China.

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Beijing air quality is good
Beijing air quality was “good” today, but how about during the Olympics?

Drivers on Beijing’s roads are experiencing a pleasant development as roads are suddenly far less congested due to new traffic regulations that only allow drivers to take to the roads every other day according to whether they have an even or odd numbered plate. Of course, if you really want to drive every day this may not be a welcome development, but for the rest of us it is great! The measures are the latest of many efforts by the Beijing government to clean up the air for the Olympics. Blue Sky Olympics has been a highly touted catch phrase for years, and it seems they may get their wish after all.

Soon after being awarded the games in 2002, the Beijing municipal government and the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the Olympiad (BOCOG) released an official action plan to meet World Health Organization requirements for concentrations of greenhouse gasses and particulate matter in the urban atmosphere and to reduce reliance on coal as a primary energy source. Pollution-free energies are expected to be the main fuels used during the Olympics, with solar-power fueling up to 90 percent of the street lamps and the heating of the bath water in the Olympic Village during the games.Solar, wind and geothermal power are also being used to power the Olympic Games.The energy mix readjustment plan called for the share of clean and efficient energy to account for over 80 percent of the final energy consumption mix.The aim has been for Beijing to showcase world top-level air quality during the Olympic Games. Judging from today’s weather, they may pull it off. Judging from a few weeks back, it would be a disaster.

Greening up a city the size of Beijing in such a short time frame has been no small feat. As Beijing continues its rapid growth, demand for energy continues to rise. Domestic supply has increased with the addition of a new gas-fired power generation plant, but the vast majority of Beijing’s energy needs must be met from outside, primarily from northern China. The Chinese central government and the Beijing municipal government have dictated that coal consumption absolutely must be reduced. There are currently several projects underway to boost Beijing’s natural gas production and storage capacity. Additionally, renewable energy technologies such as solar, geo-thermal, wind, bio-mass and hydro are actively promoted by the government. Alternative technologies for transport are also high in priority.

In its effort to clean up the air, the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau has taken steps to reduce air pollution caused by industrial smoke from burning coal, and has not been averse to showing some teeth to get the message across. Last year, when inspectors noticed heavy black smoke pouring out of the chimney of Jingneng Thermo-electric Plant, they promptly shut the plant down for inspection, which revealed that an electric dust remover had broken down and hadn’t been replaced. As no moves to correct the problem were made until it was noticed by the inspectors, punitive measures were taken against the factory, signaling others major polluters that the local climate had definitely changed. The bureau then published a list of the 28 worst offenders in Beijing and also strengthened penalties on the illegal use of stove coal.

Air quality has been improving through the introduction of more energy efficient buses. The Beijing municipal government has renewed about 8,000 buses for the 2008 Olympic Games. The old black smoke spewing buses are now a distant bad memory, and the new buses are mighty comfortable indeed, especially the air conditioned ones! As part of Beijing’s effort to cut down fuel consumption and reduce emissions, 50 energy-efficient buses using hydraulic hybrid vehicle (HHV) technology have been experimentally operating on the streets of Beijing. HHVs incorporate special devices to absorb and deposit energy in the process of braking, and release the energy when the vehicles restart or accelerate, ideal for city buses which experience frequent braking and restarting. The hydraulic devices can be installed in nearly any vehicle without major modification of their structure or engine. It is hoped that the experimental HHV buses can reduce fuel consumption by greater than 30 percent and reduce 20 to 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Fuel cell bus devloped by Tsinghua University
Hydrogen fuel cell bus developed by Tsinghua University. Did I spot one on the streets today?!

The 2008 Olympic Games will also showcase energy-efficient hybrid electric vehicles, fuel cell vehicles, and pure electric vehicles. US-based General Motors has donated a zero-emissions electric bus for use during the Olympics. Visitors and residents of the Olympic Village will witness the demonstration of a new hydrogen technology in five buses that run on a mix of hydrogen and natural gas. In an interesting coincidence, I spotted an electric bus on the street in the Financial District today! Actually, i heard it first, as it made the distinct sound of an electric bus, but there were no overhead cables about, so I looked closely at the bus and noticed the EV label! While some may debate that as the bus is powered from the grid it doesn’t actually reduce GHG, it does improve air quality in the city. Of course, maybe the one I spotted today was powered by a hydrogen fuel cell!

In addition to efforts such as substituting natural gas, electricity and liquid petroleum gas for coal as a household heating and cooking fuel, shutting down coking ovens in big industrial plants and substituting natural gas for coal in some electricity and heating plants, city officials have actively encouraged installation of highly efficient natural gas-burning micro-turbine power generators that can provide cooling, heating and electricity for large buildings without drawing power from the grid.

Perhaps the greenest of all of the efforts by city planners are the various tree-planting projects throughout the capital and vicinity, including the ongoing development of a protective greenbelt separating north China from the surrounding desert which frequently sends dusty winds into the city. To date, the Capital Greening Commission, in cooperation with various departments of the Central Government and the National Forestation Commission, has planted thousands of trees.
The ongoing efforts to beautify the city are definitely appreciated! Beijing has also cleaned up over 40 kilometers of rivers for the event, and they are vastly improved indeed! Whatever feelings Beijing residents may have toward the Olympic Games themselves, reforms such as these surely come as a breath of fresh air.

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Solar powered lights in a park in Beijing - but something is wrong with this picture
Solar powered lights in Beijing parks are great, but something is wrong with this picture!

While the finger-pointers in the West may look scornfully upon China as the biggest threat to global warming, despite that fact that many of China’s emissions are a direct result of offshoring by said finger-pointing countries in an effort sate the mindless consumerism of the local residents, who don’t want such dirty stinky polluting factories in their own back yards, especially as it wouldn’t be “environmentally friendly”, few may be aware that from a policy standpoint, at least, China is in many ways ahead of the pack. Now if we can only work on execution…

There is, sadly, a major disconnect between the lofty heights of academia and government, and the real world of practical implementation. I’m not even talking about the selfish money-centered attitude that manifests out of a universal human tendency to choose what it is good for an individual personally, even at the cost of the community as a whole. I’m talking about something far more fundamental. Knowledge takes time to trickle into human consciousness, despite the best intentions.

If you haven’t taken a good look at the picture above, please do so now, and see if you can find something wrong with the picture. At first glance, the picture can be seen as a true measure of progress… solar powered street lights using CFL lamps in a public park in Beijing. However, something went dreadfully wrong with the installation - a major disconnect between the supplier of the new technology and the park planners. Have you guessed correctly! Well done! Go to the head of the class.

For those of you who aren’t as familiar with the nuts and bolts of renewable energy technologies, take a look at the orientation of the solar PV panels atop each street light. They are all facing different directions! Some are facing in opposite directions!! Which means that they are working at a fraction of their capacity, as solar panels should be aligned for maximum exposure to solar radiation throughout the day, in a southward direction in the northern hemisphere. Ideally, the angle of the panel should be adjusted for the time of year, as the sun is much lower in the sky during the winter than in the summer.

Now, it could very well be that the designers of the panels have over-designed them to be able to operate in spite of such gross inefficiencies, but if this is so, then this too is simply inefficient. As solar panels are still rather costly to produce and come with an environmental price tag when considering their manufacturing process, as well as disposal and recycling, greater care and consideration should accompany their use.

So, what are your views? Am I overly critical? Not critical enough? You tell me.

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