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Beijing to ban drivers for blue sky Olympics

London Guardian / Jonathan Watts | April 8 2006

Beijing plans to make full use of its authoritarian powers during the Olympics in 2008 by banning more than 2m cars to ensure that one of the world's most polluted cities will have clear skies for at least the two weeks of the games.
The measures, which also include seeding clouds to induce rain and the temporary closure of building sites and factories, were made public yesterday amid concerns that the festivities could be ruined by the filthy haze that chokes the city for much of the year.

China's government sees the Olympics as a coming-out party for a country that has emerged from a century of foreign domination and domestic chaos to become one of the most powerful engines of global economic growth.
Billions of dollars are being spent on Olympic venues, new roads and the world's biggest airport terminal. It has even launched a campaign to improve manners, including anti-spitting patrols, etiquette classes for hotel staff and an English guidebook for taxi drivers and police. But Olympic organisers fear this extravagant hospitality could be undermined if the environmental cost of China's breakneck development are more apparent than the benefits.

"There are environmental problems, but our Chinese friends are doing everything to prevent that and to find solutions," Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, told reporters last week.

A central pillar of the Olympic blue-sky campaign will be the restriction of car usage. The number of cars on Beijing's streets has more than doubled in the past five years to 2.6m and it is predicted to rise another 40% by 2008. Exhaust emissions are blamed as a major contributor to smog which sometimes reaches levels hazardous to human health. A report by the European Space Agency last year concluded that Beijing and neighbouring Chinese provinces had the planet's worst levels of nitrogen dioxide, which can cause fatal damage to the lungs.

Municipal officials said the top priority for the government was to keep the majority of these vehicles off the road during the Olympics. In an interview with the Agence France Press news agency, Wang Dawei, the director in charge of air quality at the Beijing Environmental Protection Agency, said drivers would be forced to leave their cars at home.

During a two-month period starting shortly before the Olympic opening ceremony and ending after the Paralympics, the number of cars on the streets would be almost halved to 1.85m. During the fortnight of the games, it will be cut to less than 1m. Officials are working on a system of punishments and incentives, including paid holidays and free public transport.

During the July 25 to September 17 period, construction work on most of the city's more than 3,000 building sites will cease and many power plants and factories will be close. To dampen down the particulate matter that builds up in the air, the city will also spray the roads several times a day and use planes and rockets to seed the clouds with silver iodine or liquid nitrogen, which induces precipitation.

However, many of Beijing's previous campaigns to reduce pollution have had only a limited effect. In recent years, more than 100 factories have been moved out of the city centre, gas has been being supplied to millions of homes that previously used coal, and more than 4,000 old buses and 30,000 old taxis have been replaced. But furious economic growth has created new problems, such as the sale of more than 1,000 new cars every day.

In 2005, the city still fell far short of its target of 292 "blue sky days". This year has also got off to a bad start with 20 days in January designed as "seriously polluted" - the worst record in six years.

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