China Keeping Olympics Pollution Control in Place

One of the big questions hanging over this summer's Games was whether the measures China took to clean up its polluted capital would work. After a few hazy days, the sun came out and banished the doubters. Now many are wondering if China will stick to its greener ways.

So far, the signs are promising. The country's leaders and Beijing residents were thrilled with the results of the green drive, and ordinary folks have clamored to keep some measures in place. No one is happier about this than Wan Gang, the father of China's green-car R&D program and the minister of science and technology. "The Olympics taught us all a good lesson," he says. "Now people all over the country have an urgent desire for a better environment." Such enthusiasm is helping him and like-minded leaders push for the adoption of clean-energy car technologies and other antipollution measures.

Chief among them are restrictions on the use of Beijing's 3.5 million registered automobiles. In the past, leaders hesitated to place permanent limits on private-car traffic because the increasingly assertive middle class squawked at such constraints. But the Games have helped shift attitudes, and now the city is unveiling new rules for a six-month trial, inspired by—though not as drastic as—the cutbacks that took 2 million vehicles off roads for two months during the Olympics and Paralympics. Under the new regulations, a third of government cars have been mothballed. As of Oct. 11, a fifth of official and private vehicles are barred from driving on weekdays. Municipal authorities will also begin phasing out hundreds of thousands of vehicles that exceed emission standards by Oct. 2009, a year ahead of schedule.

And soon the government is slated to unveil 1,000 clean-energy public-transport vehicles in 10 Chinese cities. Beijing introduced 23 fuel-cell cars, 470 electric vehicles and 102 hybrids during the Games, and drivers loved them. Wan says local officials and citizens are warming to the green vehicles, too. "The Olympics has been a time for demonstrating new kinds of high technology," he says. "It'll be just like people who have an old TV at home—they'll change it when they see a new LCD screen."

Another improvement has been in public transportation. Among Beijing's Games-related initiatives were a new subway line, an airport rail link and reduced bus fares. Such transit saw heavier use as drivers were forced off the roads. Bluer skies and fewer traffic jams have since persuaded more than two thirds of respondents in a recent survey to support the traffic controls. New rules will take 800,000 vehicles off the streets daily and require ordinary citizens to take public transport one day a week.

Of course, the battle is not over yet. Parts of the Olympics pollution crackdown can't be sustained on a permanent basis, such as shutting down construction sites and factories inside Beijing and closing some factories in neighboring provinces. That means pollution is likely to return in the coming months, if not to previous levels. Beijing's pollution index in August was the lowest in a decade—but it quadrupled in early October after Olympic traffic restrictions were relaxed. And private-car owners—and China's powerful auto industry—may vigorously protest the new regulations in hopes of persuading authorities to scrap them when the trial period ends next April.

Indeed, the backlash has already begun. Within two hours of the announcement of the new traffic restrictions on Sept. 28, thousands of Netizens posted complaints on the China's leading web portal, sina.com, grousing that the new measures discriminate "unfairly" against car owners. "There is still a debate over the vehicle ban, even though the government is determined to uphold the air quality, and is getting a lot of support from ordinary people," says Mao Shoulong, a public administration expert at Renmin University. This resistance is one reason Wan—who worked for 10 years at the German automaker Audi in vehicle development and strategic planning—has trained his sights on building cleaner cars, not banning them entirely. He says the government is "trying its best" to build on green vehicles introduced during the Games. If all public transport vehicles were switched to clean energy, Wan says, the sector would reduce fuel consumption by nearly 25-30 percent and cut emissions by a quarter. That could outstrip the benefits of halving the number of buses and taxis currently on the roads. In other words, it would let Beijingers keep their blue skies—and their beloved cars, too.

Join the Discussion