Toxic Air Has Descended on Beijing, Just in Time for the Winter Olympics

Toxic Air Has Descended on Beijing, Just in Time for the Winter Olympics

The city was able to drastically reduce pollution levels ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games, but with just two weeks left until the event, time is running out.

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
A man walks in the Olympic Park during a smoggy day in Beijing on January 24, 2022.
A man walks in the Olympic Park during a smoggy day in Beijing on January 24, 2022.
Photo: Noel Celis / AFP (Getty Images)

Just two years after covid-19 forced the International Olympic Committee to postpone the 2020 Olympics, another health hazard—this one indisputably humanmade—threatens to endanger athletes at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games. Less than two weeks out from the events, recently released data shows dangerously high pollution levels are clouding Beijing’s skies.

Officials are reportedly taking coordinated action in a last-minute push to improve air quality ahead of the event. But with just 11 days until the first events are scheduled to start, the country is at risk of exposing athletes to smog-filled ski slopes, even as the country boasts about its pledge to power the games completely from renewable energy.

Advertisement

2 / 8

Officials Are Ramping up Efforts to Reduce Pollution

Officials Are Ramping up Efforts to Reduce Pollution

Planes are parked on the apron at Beijing Capital International Airport on January 24, 2022 in Beijing, China. With just over a week to go until the opening ceremony, final preparations are being made in Beijing ahead of the forthcoming 2022 Winter Olympics.
Planes are parked on the apron at Beijing Capital International Airport on January 24, 2022 in Beijing, China. With just over a week to go until the opening ceremony, final preparations are being made in Beijing ahead of the forthcoming 2022 Winter Olympics.
Photo: Carl Court (Getty Images)

A stark uptick in pollution has come at just the wrong time for Bejing. In a statement provided to Reuters on Monday, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Ecology and Environment said the government was prepared to make an all-out push to reduce pollution just two weeks out from the start of the event. That statement comes as new data shows Bejing’ss average concentrations of PM2.5, a key measure of smog, hovered around 205 micrograms per cubic meter. China’s ideal PM2.5 standard is 35 micrograms per cubic meter. The World Health Organization has even more stringent guidelines at 15 micrograms per cubic meter averaged over a 24-hour period, above which the organization deems airinhealthy.

Advertisement

3 / 8

China ‘Green Olympics’ Are in Danger of Self-Destructing

China ‘Green Olympics’ Are in Danger of Self-Destructing

A man walks down some stairs as the Beijing Olympic Tower is seen during a smoggy day in Beijing on January 24, 2022.
A man walks down some stairs as the Beijing Olympic Tower is seen during a smoggy day in Beijing on January 24, 2022.
Photo: Noel Celis / AFP (Getty Images)

China made an ambitious pledge to power the 2022 Olympic Games using only wind, hydroelectric, and solar energy. As the Science Times notes, much of that renewable energy generation is expected to come from the city of Zhangjiakou, which put up wind farms across hundreds of acres of land capable of generating around 14 million kilowatts of electricity. In addition, solar panels have been added to several nearby mountainsides, new additions that are expected to generate even more electricity.

A successful event relying only on renewable energy would mark a symbolic victory for China, which, despite having a bustling renewable industry, is still the world’s largest carbon polluter. The country also relies heavily on coal, which makes up more than half of China’s domestic energy generation in 2020.

Advertisement

4 / 8

Beyond Pollution, Fake Snow Is Another Issue

Beyond Pollution, Fake Snow Is Another Issue

A delivery worker uses a mobile phone as the Beijing Olympic Tower is seen during a smoggy day in Beijing on January 24, 2022.
A delivery worker uses a mobile phone as the Beijing Olympic Tower is seen during a smoggy day in Beijing on January 24, 2022.
Photo: Noel Celis / AFP (Getty Images)

When athletes take to Zhangjiakou’s ski slopes next month, they’ll be competing in the first-ever Olympic Games to rely completely on artificial snow. That’s according to a Bloomberg report released last week, which estimated China could use up as much as 2 million cubic meters of water to create enough artificial snow to complete the skiing and snowboarding events. (The 2014 games in Sochi also relied heavily on fake snow as did the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang.)

All that water use could put a strain on a region already dealing with scarcity issues. In a statement late last year, a spokesperson for the ​​Beijing Winter Olympics said nearly 10% of the water used in one Zhangjiakou district would be used solely to create artificial snow. Though China has deployed 11 water tanks near the slopes to collect water from runoff, rain, and melted snow to lower the burden, environmental groups like Hong Kong-based China Water Risk worry it’s not enough.

Advertisement

5 / 8

China May Turn to Cloud-Seeding Tech to Clear Pollution

China May Turn to Cloud-Seeding Tech to Clear Pollution

Buses carrying international passengers depart for hotels under escort at Beijing Capital International Airport on January 24, 2022 in Beijing, China.
Buses carrying international passengers depart for hotels under escort at Beijing Capital International Airport on January 24, 2022 in Beijing, China.
Photo: Carl Court (Getty Images)

In addition to adding 21 cities to its winter air pollution campaign, raising vehicle fuel standards, and scaling back operations at factories and other major emitters in recent months, the country may rely on a tech quick fix to reduce pollution ahead of te Olympics. It’s one that’s become increasingly common in recent years: cloud seeding. This practice—which so far has a spotty track record—involves shooting rockets filled with silver iodide into the sky to induce rainfall. This helps knock pollution particles down and clears the air. China’s experimentation with cloud seeding dates back at least to the 2008 Olympic Games and has become more refined since.

A paper published last month by Tsinghua University found cloud seeding tech was used ahead of the centenary celebration of the Communist Party’s founding in July. In that case, the researchers determined the simulated rain may have helped reduce the amount of PM2.5 by more than two-thirds. That translated to enough to move air standards from good to moderate on the World Health Organization’s air rating system.

Advertisement

6 / 8

Past Anti-Pollution Efforts Worked … in the Short Term

Past Anti-Pollution Efforts Worked … in the Short Term

The Olympic Tower is seen behind a a barricade that delimitates the area not accessible to the general public, that will host Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at Olympic Park on January 23, 2022 in Beijing, China.
The Olympic Tower is seen behind a a barricade that delimitates the area not accessible to the general public, that will host Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at Olympic Park on January 23, 2022 in Beijing, China.
Photo: Andrea Verdelli (Getty Images)

China faced concerns about air pollution in the run up to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Though drastic steps were taken to quickly reduce pollution levels, those games saw worse particulate air pollution than any other game on record up until that point, according to a 2009 study conducted by scientists at Oregon State University and Peking University. Their analysis determined levels of coarse particulate matter were higher than what was considered safe by the World Health Organization about 81% of the time.

Still, there were measurable benefits. According to a 2012 study conducted by University of Rochester researchers in the Journal of the American Medical Association, drastic action to reduce pollution by China in the months leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympics resulted in a 60% reduction in sulfur dioxide, a 48% carbon monoxide reduction, and a 43 reduction in nitrogen dioxide. That pollution reduction reportedly correlated with short-term declines in health issues associated with cardiovascular disease.

Another paper cited by the Chicago Policy Review meanwhile estimated that the drastic cutback in pollution ahead of the 2008 Games may have prevented about 196,000 premature deaths. Unfortunately, anti-pollution efforts loosened in the months following the event.

Advertisement

7 / 8

Air Pollution Is Still a Long-Term Problem

Air Pollution Is Still a Long-Term Problem

A security guard closes the gate in the fence that delimitates the area not accessible to the general public, that will host Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics is seen at Olympic Park on January 23, 2022 in Beijing, China.
A security guard closes the gate in the fence that delimitates the area not accessible to the general public, that will host Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics is seen at Olympic Park on January 23, 2022 in Beijing, China.
Photo: Andrea Verdelli (Getty Images)

Poor air quality is a danger to human health. If pollution’s accompanying coughing fits and strained breathing didn’t already make that abundantly clear, an Air Quality Index report released last year determined poor air quality was “the greatest risk to human health” around the globe. Particulate matter can cut human life expectancy by an average of two years.

While it’s great that China wants to clear the air ahead of a big event, it’s also clear that more needs to be done so that we don’t need emergency measures in the first place.

Advertisement

8 / 8