UNITED NATIONS — Beijing's $17 billion effort to support environmental enhancements and green projects around the 2008 Olympic Games met or exceeded almost all of its goals and made an impression on city officials and residents that is likely to last for years, the United Nations said in an assessment released today.
The U.N. review of China's efforts — issued at the 25th annual governing council of the U.N. Environment Programme in Nairobi, Kenya — concludes that Beijing succeeded in cleaning its notorious air pollution far beyond what most observers expected. The games also served as an impetus for permanent improvements to the city's transportation infrastructure and vehicle emission standards, possibly influencing other metropolitan areas in China to follow Beijing's lead.
"Considerable effort has gone into fulfilling the letter and spirit of the promise by the Beijing Olympic Games Organizing Committee (BOCOG) to deliver a 'Green Olympics,'" UNEP said.
The study suggests that the biggest gains were made in air quality. City officials achieved an almost complete phaseout of ozone-depleting hydrochlorofluorocarbons, gases also known to contribute to the global greenhouse effect. The phaseout was initially scheduled to be complete by 2030, but UNEP says Beijing already met the goal last year.
Efforts to enhance air quality also pushed the city to adopt strict European-type vehicle fuel quality and emission standards, making the city's vehicle emissions regulations some of the most stringent in the world. Rules put in place during the games to restrict traffic, along with tighter emissions standards, helped Beijing cut carbon monoxide pollution by 47 percent and particulate matter levels by 20 percent.
Emissions of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, the main sources of acid rain pollution, also fell by 38 percent and 14 percent, respectively.
As a result of Beijing's ambitious and aggressive attack on air pollution, the number of "blue sky days" with the lightest amounts of air pollution rose to 274 last year, up from about 180 in 2000. Although the efforts were initially expected to only last during the run-up to and staging of the Olympic Games, UNEP officials say the big gains made have likely led to permanent awareness of and demands for better air quality among Beijing residents and municipal authorities. Many restrictions on heavily polluting truck traffic, for instance, were extended months after the games closed, the report notes.
But Beijing still has a long way to go toward cleaning up its air, the report warns. Perhaps the biggest challenge facing authorities is how to maintain the gains they have made on air quality improvement despite the estimated 1,000 new vehicles registered in the city each day.
The city should continue to spend on rail transport, even though the number of railway tracks already doubled in advance of the games, U.N. officials say. The report also recommends tax incentives to encourage more residents to purchase cleaner vehicles and possibly even implementing a Stockholm-like congestion pricing system for the city's urban core.
"While it cannot be denied that the Beijing Municipal Government has made, and continues to make, strenuous efforts to improve air quality through addressing emissions from the transport, energy and industrial sectors, air pollution is still the single largest environmental and public health issue affecting the city," they say.
The report also chides the city for not regulating airborne dust and soot, although China as a whole does not regulate fine particles in air pollution.
The U.N. assessment says the Beijing Olympic Games achieved big strides in other areas, as well. Citywide solid waste recycling goals were exceeded by 5 percent, and recycling at Olympic facilities was 23 percent higher than the targeted rate. Twenty percent of the energy used to stage the games came from renewable energy sources, even though Beijing still relies on coal for more than 40 percent of its electricity consumption.
City officials also dramatically expanded the amount of open green space that residents can enjoy long after the games. The report estimates that Beijing planted more than 30 million trees and bushes to establish 720 green spaces in the city center.
Despite successes in most areas, Beijing authorities missed a chance to work closely with nonprofits to spark even greater environmental awareness and activity throughout the city, UNEP says. The city also failed to institute tough procurement practice requirements on suppliers, an omisson that could have led to shortcuts being taken to the detriment of the environment.
UNEP also says it is having difficulty determining the ultimate "carbon footprint" left by the Beijing Olympics, due to unreliable figures and having no clear methodology for counting carbon dioxide emissions from activities surrounding the games.