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Will Beijing's Efforts Clear Air For Olympics?


The Olympics opening ceremony is just one week from Friday. And we're joined now by Anthony Kuhn, as we just heard Beijing correspondent for NPR, to talk about the latest on the city's plan to combat pollution.

Good morning.


MONTAGNE: And Anthony, I am looking at Good Morning newspaper's photographs and showing in one case an Olympic stadium shrouded in thick, gray smog. Now, that was yesterday. I gather there's been a little rain today.

KUHN: Yes. The rain or the wind are things that could save them in the end. And we've just had a few days in which the air quality was not up to Beijing's standards, not up to World Health Organization standards. It was very smoggy. And the government said that if the air quality is not up to standard two days before the games, they could put into effect a Plan B, and that could mean even more restrictions on private car use. What's been suggested is taking 90 percent of the cars off the roads. And that would be extremely drastic. But whether or not it will work we'll have to see.

MONTAGNE: So Plan B standing for drastic pollution controls?

KUHN: That's correct. I mean, you can imagine if only 10 percent of the cars are allowed onto the roads, that means, for example, if your license plates number ends in an 8, you could only drive on the eighth of the month, the 18th or the 28th of the month. So basically people would only be able to drive every 10 days. And that's very drastic.

MONTAGNE: Now, China's government insists the weather is a big factor in this pollution. Is that just an excuse?

KUHN: It is definitely a factor. And anyone who lives in Beijing can tell you that, well, July and August in Beijing are soupy and muggy and hazy and visibility is poor. But that does not, you know, that doesn't take away from the fact that there is very serious pollution. Now, Beijing weather forecasts are already predicting that for the games they will have good weather, that this hazy spell will break right after what the Chinese say is the first day of the fall, according to the lunar calendar, which according to statistics usually means clear weather. So it could save them or it could break them on the first day of the games.

MONTAGNE: Now, you know, you just talked about Plan B. But when you add it all up, is there any way for the Chinese government to absolutely deliver the air quality that it's promised for years for these games?

KUHN: It's very hard to say whether they can give, you know, acceptable air quality on every day. And you know, while the government points out that they really have done a lot, including putting in solar-powered street lamps and natural gas-powered buses and five new subway lines, the main thing they have not done is to restrict private car use. And so these temporary measures we're seeing now may just not be adequate. We're talking about a city of 16 million people and 3 million cars. And you know, it's very seldom you see a city this size with no restrictions on cars driving into the city center, no congestion charges, no bridge and road tolls, none of that. And so only now they're finding that it's very hard to clean up what's been in the making for many, many years.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, we only have a few seconds. I gather that Beijing's talking about seeding the clouds to make more rain. Yes? No?

KUHN: Yes. If they have to they will seed the clouds and try and bring the rain down before it comes down on the ceremony. But there are a lot of people who are skeptic about man's ability to manipulate nature that way.

MONTAGNE: Anthony, thanks very much.

KUHN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Anthony Kuhn speaking to us from Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.