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What is China doing to create a green Olympics?

China Cleans Up
Passengers wait to board the new Airport Express train at the station in Beijing Capital International Airport. The city's three new subway lines opened after seven years of construction.
Passengers wait to board the new Airport Express train at the station in Beijing Capital International Airport. The city's three new subway lines opened after seven years of construction.
Feng Li/Getty Images

Years ago, China committed $12.2 billion toward greenifying Beijing if the Olympic Committee would give it the 2008 games [source: Wired]. Considering that China actually manufactures most of the world's alternative-energy technologies, including solar water heaters and solar photovoltaic cells, this would seem to be a natural fit [source: AFP]. But almost all of those technologies are simply exported to wealthier countries. Beijing would have to change its way of operating, and the government would have to back the effort whole heartedly. In fact, China implemented restrictions that would make most of us cry "oppression."

For some time, Beijing has been under an even-odd license plate law. Essentially, if your license plate ends in an even number, you can drive on particular days, and if your license plate ends in an odd number, the rest of the days are yours. This rule has reduced the number of cars on Beijing's roads by about 2 million, which is more than 50 percent of Beijing's traffic [source: New York Times]. And that's not all.

Since winning its Olympic bid, China has torn up the city to build subway lines, another effort at keeping cars in their garages. In addition, Beijing has a new fleet of electric buses and battery-powered garbage trucks.

But the plans went beyond the roads. Known for its lack of environmental regulations in the business sector, China had to implement new restrictions to try to clear the air. Power plants had to integrate scrubbing systems; coal furnaces shut down completely and the government pushed steel mills outside city limits. No one was allowed to use spray paint outdoors.

And for Beijing contractors not working on Olympic venues, business stood at a standstill: There was a ban on all non-Olympic construction projects starting on July 20, 2008. Beijing's water treatment facilities were upgraded to produce cleaner water throughout the city, lest Olympic athletes be afraid to take a shower in one of the new, super-green Olympic facilities. Before 2001, Beijing had three sewage treatment plants. In 2006, that number jumped to 14 [source: Beijing 2008].

For those who visited Beijing before the Olympic hubbub, the city might have looked a little different, too. Tens of millions of trees have been planted in the last few years -- an effort at carbon-dioxide removal and a literally green Olympic venue.

The results of all these changes were somewhat mixed. While pollutants coming out of BeijingĀ  decreased, that was only part of the problem. A huge amount of air pollution from coal-fired energy plants and factories comes from the countryside -- outside Beijing. One study by U.S. and Chinese scientists found that up to 70 percent of air particulates in Beijing actually come from other cities and towns [source: Wired]. So cleaning up Beijing itself is sort of like pumping water out of a lake while it rains.

It also didn't make China much cleaner in the long run. Beijing only comprises 3 percent of China's total energy consumption [source: AFP]. Limiting the exhaust from Beijing's factories hardly affects the overall greenhouse-gas output of the country as a whole.

Still, Chinese officials said this Olympic clean up was just the beginning of the effort to make China more green. Certainly Beijing's new healthy infrastructure -- water treatment, subway trains and power-plant scrubbers -- will stick around after the games. And the facilities for the games themselves are nothing short of an Al Gore fantasy.

On the next page, we'll take a look at some of the other impressive technology that will serve as a model for all green Olympics to come.