The Chinese government is afraid that the Beijing Olympics this summer could put a choke hold on the airways of foreign dignitaries and tourists, not to mention the world’s premier athletes. Rather than wowing its visitors with world-class air pollution, China wants to impress them with its clean, green Olympics, says Michael B. McElroy of Harvard University.

McElroy holds an endowed chair there, the Gilbert Butler Professor of Environmental Sciences.

At a meeting in Cambridge, Mass., yesterday, McElroy briefly outlined how Chinese leaders have stated they’re planning to clear the air. It’s not a permanent solution, he said. Just a short-term, clean-up to begin during the period leading up to – and extending through – the August Olympic games.

For starters, Beijing officials plan to ban most motoring in the greater metropolitan area. This will greatly ratchet down tailpipe emissions of smog-producing gases and soot. I guess we should look for plenty of bikers or perhaps those classic rickshaws clogging streets, not gasoline- and diesel-powered cars and trucks. In addition, area factories will be temporarily furloughed, he said. Affected workers may get a chance to watch the games on TV, now, but that wasn’t the impetus; it was to eliminate the oily soot and gases normally belching out of smokestacks at manufacturing plants, which typically burn anything-but-clean local coal.

Finally, the pièce de résistance: a massive cloud-seeding campaign. It’s being planned to take place upwind of game venues. The idea is to get the clouds to dump their rains upstream of outdoor event sites so that visitors and athletes can enjoy blue skies.

McElroy, who has been studying climate implications of China’s rapidly escalating industrialization and urbanization, spoke as part of a panel I was moderating. It led off a half-day conference on climate change. This event was jointly sponsored by Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment and by the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Who knows how much China’s blue-sky game plan will cost, or whether it will actually succeed in making a more breathable Olympics. What it does do is emphasize a toxic side effect of largely unregulated commercial and industrial growth. We saw similarly polluted skies and waters as the United States evolved from an agrarian nation to an industrial one, largely in the post-Civil War era. China now wants to dwarf our industrial revolution and compress it into an even shorter time frame.

China has to do more than just take a breather for the Olympics. It needs to figure out how to grow well – in ways that bring economic growth without sacrificing the respiratory and cardiovascular health of the workers who should benefit from that prosperity.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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