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An Olympic Challenge for Clean Air

Aug 12, 2008

Cars drive through thick smog on a street in Beijing on Sept. 21, 2008, the first day of no traffic restrictions which limited motorists during the Olympic and Paralympic Games. (PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)

Cars drive through thick smog on a street in Beijing on Sept. 21, 2008, the first day of no traffic restrictions which limited motorists during the Olympic and Paralympic Games. (PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)

by Orville Schell

Originally published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, August 12, 2008

The most watched event during the Olympic Games may well be an unscheduled one in which China is the only contender. That competition involves Beijing’s struggle over the penumbra of air pollution from dust, cars, and coal-fired industries that so often hangs over the city.

Despite the severity, it is nonetheless likely that through the prodigious efforts of Chinese officials the problem will be largely alleviated for the Games, if only temporarily. What will not be alleviated, however, is the overall environmental crisis that besets China.

Millennia of abuse coupled with the more recent overexploitation of its natural-resource base to keep growing over 10% a year have put enormous pressure on China’s natural environment. Indeed, Beijing’s air quality only hints at the far broader problem of algae-choked lakes, toxic rivers, rapidly expanding deserts; degraded marine habitat; poisoned agricultural land; vanishing wildlife; and changing weather patterns. Fortunately, these resources exist in the visible world which allows us to be more aware of their state of health.

However, there is another critical natural resource that remains largely invisible, incapable of sounding its own alarm. This is the earth’s atmosphere. It has become the dumping ground for escalating amounts of heat-trapping greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels, mainly oil and coal. And China, which is almost 80% reliant on coal for the generation of electrical power, has just recently become the world’s largest emitter of these gases. However, the US is still the largest historical and per capita emitter, producing four to five times more per capita than China.

If Chinese are not to be unfairly penalized and to enjoy some of the same benefits as the “developed” world, but at the same time not to tip our planet’s climatic equilibrium out of balance, the US must take the lead in working out a system of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (as the UN Framework on Climate Change puts it) in the struggle against global warming. Alas, we are still a long ways from accomplishing this critical goal.

The Olympic challenge has always been for nations to establish a sufficient common ground on which a healthy sports competition can be staged. Now the world confronts a parallel, but life-threatening, challenge—finding sufficient common ground on which to take a stand to protect the larger commons of our planet’s atmosphere. In comparison, cleaning up Beijing’s air is a modest, even a doable, challenge.

Chinese President Hu Jintao recently said, “Our task is tough and our time is limited… Party organizations and governments at all levels must give priority to emission reduction… and drive the idea deep into people’s hearts.”

Unfortunately, both the US and China, the world’s two largest emitters, still hide behind each other when it comes to committing themselves to defined limits on carbon emissions and are thus largely out of the global climate-change game. But, because we collectively produce almost half the world’s greenhouse gases, without us, there is no real global game.

So, what better place to start forging a new bilateral alliance than at the Olympic Games? President Bush, who left Beijing Monday, could completely justify what was a controversial trip by using it as a platform to highlight our common interest with China in forging a bold, new and comprehensive collaboration on climate change.

Orville Schell is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society and a longtime writer on China.

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