In 2001, when bidding for the chance to host the Olympic Games in its capital city of Beijing, China pledged to present pristine skies, waterways and cityscapes as well as cutting-edge green technology if chosen. The rapidly developing nation, which nabbed the title of world's largest greenhouse-gas emitter from the United States last year, failed to act on that promise until the last possible minute, rushing to clean up just months before the games started in August.
Clearly, the environment has not been a priority for China, which has long put the bulk of its energy and resources into expanding its economy. The heavy cloak of smog that hangs over the country has grown worse over the years as scores of factories and plants emit noxious smoke into the air. In the early days of climate negotiations, says Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Chinese authorities were hardly cooperative.
"They just wouldn't hear of anything. They saw this effort as a Western conspiracy to prevent them from growing," Kerry said in a conference call earlier this month.
Beijing's cleanup for the Olympics — though not a full delivery on its 2001 promise — was surprisingly successful, at least temporarily. Traffic was severely limited within city limits and many polluting factories and other businesses were shut down for the duration of the games, and air quality improved dramatically. Results from an unprecedented NASA satellite study to measure the impact of the air pollution controls show that levels of certain pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide, declined sharply while the restrictions were in place.
The success of the controls encouraged the Chinese government to begin a six-month trial of citywide traffic restrictions, which, though not as drastic as the cutbacks during the Olympics, should make quite an impact on the city's emissions. Beijing citizens are also still using the new subway line and airport rail link created for the games and taking advantage of reduced bus fares.
China still has a long way to go, however, in terms of cutting its emissions and cleaning up the pollution that has fouled its air and spread through its waterways. Its countryside is littered with villages tainted by toxic chemicals like lead and mercury, and the people who live there are dying of cancer at alarming rates. Factories in these areas pour chemical-laden waste into the waterways, and poor residents have no way to protect themselves from the contaminants.
These pressing problems have been caused by the government's decades-old attitude of expansion at all costs, yet officials say efforts to clean up the environment would hamper the growth of China's middle class. It's true that the country's growing economy has afforded many people in China a higher standard of living, but the poor who are left behind are worse off than ever.
Despite recent green initiatives, the government's focus remains primarily on economic welfare, and China still has plans to build more than 550 coal-fired power plants. The country depends on coal, a major carbon emitter, for more than 70 percent of its power — compare that to an average of 20 percent in other countries around the world.
Many people are optimistic that China is at least willing to discuss environmental measures and climate controls with Western nations. Last year, China agreed to work toward containing carbon emissions as long as it receives technological and financial help.
"That was a very big step," says Li Yan of Greenpeace. "Now the challenge is not to say what is the next step, but to implement" policy with Western financial help.
It remains to be seen whether any real action will be taken. The global financial crisis may cause more factories to close as demand for Chinese goods slows down, and some hope that a portion of Beijing's recently announced billion-dollar stimulus package will go toward clean technology.
But at the same time, others fear that smaller budgets will prompt officials to put environmental goals on the back burner and allow the businesses that have created much of the country's growth to keep on polluting. China's actions through the global recession may be the biggest indicator we'll get as to how serious it really is about cleaning up the environment.