What is China doing to create a green Olympics?

Beijing Image Gallery Despite extensive efforts to reduce pollution, the skies of Beijing were still decidedly hazy only two weeks before the start of Olympic Games. See more pictures of Beijing.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

When China promised to hold a "green Olympics" in 2008, the country may have bitten off more than it could chew. The promise helped Beijing win the bid for the games, but the city struggled to keep its word [source: Wired]. However, no one questioned the country's commitment: China implementing severe restrictions to try to clear Beijing's skies and turn it into the most environmentally friendly Olympic venue ever. It was a tall order.

China now competes with the United States for the distinction of world's top air polluter [source: AFP]. Because Beijing's skyrocketing economic growth pours so much exhaust into the a­tmosphere, it has far worse air quality than Los Angeles (cons­idered to be the United States' smoggiest city) [source: Wired]. Factories, old coal furnaces, unscrubbed power plants and 1,000 additional cars a day turn Beijing's air into a nearly impenetrable health hazard [source: AFP]. In early 2008, studies concluded the diesel-engine-emitted air particles and ozone are five times the upper level considered safe by the World Health Organization [source: IHT].

The air is so bad that many of the world-class athletes converging on Beijing for the Olympic Games brought along face masks as part of their sports equipment. Competing outdoors in Beijing had the potential to trigger asthma in people who have never had it [source: Wired].

So was it possible for Beijing to make itself green for the Olympics? It all depends on your definition of green -- whether it means an environmentally friendly Olympics or an environmentally healthy city. China pulled out all the stops to achieve both goals, but the former seemed like more of a long shot.

In this article, we'll find out how China tried to fulfill its commitment to a green games. The extreme effort to clean up one of the world's most polluted cities is a testament to the power of a one-party government: Many countries wouldn't be able to accomplish what China did in such a short period.

­On the next page, we'll see how China tried to change Beijing's hazy reputation.