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June 9, 2008 |  Print  Your Opinion  

Maximilian  Müngersdorff

Topic Olympics Should Serve as an Environmental Wake-up Call

Maximilian Müngersdorff: Beijing’s commitments to improve its environmental situation encouraged the IOC to accept its Olympic bid. The challenge is now to prevent economic growth outweighing the improvements that have been made and integrating these into a long-term and countrywide strategy.

The opening ceremony of this year's Olympic Games will be the starting point to one of the most highly debated Games in contemporary history. The list of issues discussed in the run-up to the event is long and often controversial, but one topic has received surprisingly scant attention during the last weeks' newspaper coverage: China's, and particularly, Beijing's environmental situation. "Surprisingly," because of the huge social and economic impacts of environmental degradation in the country and the unprecedented efforts by the city of Beijing to improve the situation in the forefront of this year's Olympic Games.

In the course of China's economic rise during the last two decades, hardly any thoughts were "wasted" towards a sustainable use of its natural resources. Especially Beijing, until the 1990s among the 10 most polluted cities in the world, could not escape these undesirable trends. The metropolis' unbridled economic growth has put its environmental resources under enormous stress. Every day, Beijing's infrastructure suffers from 1,000 newly registered cars; the overexploitation of water has led to water scarcity and declining water quality; a recent UNEP report identified over 9,000 polluting enterprises as one of the key reasons for the regular exceedance of WHO air pollution levels. Radical improvements in China's antipollution-efforts seem to be the inevitable answer to these enormous challenges.

No environmental improvements - no Games

In fact, at least the verbal commitments in the run-up to this year's Summer Olympics strike the right note by declaring these Games as the first "Green Olympics." Beijing's decision-makers promised not only to consider strict ecological standards while constructing the Olympic facilities but also assured to improve the overall environmental performance of Beijing through numerous initiatives. How did this unexpected awareness of environmental issues evolve? Incidentally, Beijing's commitments to improve its environmental situation are today seen as the main reason for the IOC's acceptance of the city's Olympic bid. Hence, Beijing's decision-makers were not just guided by suddenly awoken moral concerns but mainly by rational considerations. Leaving aside the underlying reasons for this paradigm shift, it is now time to briefly evaluate the actual outcome of the consents.

"Green Olympics" - Starting or end point of Chinese environmental endeavors?

In recent years, nearly US$17 billion were invested to improve Beijing's environmental situation and the city officials introduced numerous laws and regulations in the field of environmental protection.

These efforts have resulted in quite promising improvements, for instance:

  • strict emission standards have sharply reduced many of the city's major air pollutants
  • the large-scale introduction of natural gas and first steps towards the use of renewables (e.g. geothermal power) reduced the amount of coal for energy production relatively
  • technologies to save water and to decrease pollution have been successfully introduced

But that's only one part of the story. The other side looks much less optimistic:

  • improvements in the transportation sector cannot hold pace with the sharply rising number of vehicles in Beijing
  • certain emissions could not be reduced between 2000 and 2006 due to Beijing's fast development and the still widespread use of coal for energy production in total numbers
  • the outflow from Beijing's major drinking water sources is still much higher than the natural inflow

Beijing's decision-makers apparently realized that unscrupulous exploitation and pollution of its natural resources is not an option for the future - neither in moral nor in economic terms. On the other hand, many of the measures in place during this year's Olympic Games, for instance the closing of the highest polluting industries or the temporary banning of vehicles, will only have a short-term impact during the Games. In addition, the untamed economic growth of Beijing contains, in itself, the risk of outweighing the improvements already made and those to come. However, most initiatives and laws introduced by the municipality show a long-term oriented strategy towards an environmentally sustainable urban development that will have a continuous influence even after the gates of the Olympic sites have closed.

Beijing's environmental efforts - impact on the whole country and beyond

This year's "Green Olympics" have the potential not only to enhance the quality of life in Beijing but most likely beyond. In this connection, one has to consider that China is currently the most economically important and powerful country of the emerging economies worldwide. Therefore, China's decisions in the field of environmental protection are critically assessed from many perspectives. All this happens during a time, in which such issues climb the priority rank of policy agendas all over the world and international climate protection measures are reshuffled. In this regard, this year's summer Olympics are not only a superlative sporting event but also an international wake-up call for environmental concerns.

Maximilian Muengersdorff is a former intern of the Atlantische Initiative e.V., which publishes, and is currently enrolled in the MA program Globalization, Environment and Social Change at Stockholm University.

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