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Published: Tuesday, 5/23/2006

Wheezing toward the Olympics

China's desperate scientific marathon to meet international air-quality standards in time for the 2008 summer Olympics illustrates the perils faced by rapidly growing nations when they ignore environmental protection.

The air in Beijing is so fouled by factory smoke, made worse by persistent dust storms, that motorists are being asked to refrain from driving to work one day a month. That's a tall order in a city that has more than 2.6 million motor vehicles on the road, increasing by 1,000 every day.

At the same time, the local "weather modification office" has taken to firing rockets that seed the clouds to bring rain and scrub the atmosphere, at least temporarily.

China does not want to be embarrassed when the Olympic games roll around and athletes from the world over wheeze out of the starting blocks and tourists find it difficult to draw a clean breath. That's why officials have launched an intensive, if somewhat belated, campaign to clear the air in two years, a deadline that will be hard to meet.

The nation is caught between a desire to use the Olympics to showcase its red-hot economy and the environmental consequences that can be wrought by 9 percent annual growth.

Until fairly recently, China paid scant attention to the industrial waste that poured out of its factory smokestacks and drained into rivers and lakes, as long as growth continued unabated. With rapid growth has come higher living standards and middle-class desires for home and auto ownership, naturally accompanied by ever-increasing demand for electricity, much of it from coal-fired power plants, and for oil.

If China has made a mistake, it is in grossly underestimating the forces unleashed by growth, including the suffocating pollution that threatens to upstage the Beijing games in two years.

China already has stepped up use of cleaner-burning natural gas, but some observers believe that "no-car days" and factory closures will become mandatory to make the air breathable for athletes and spectators.

If that proves to be the case, the Chinese people may one day look back at the 2008 Olympics as their introduction into a more environmentally responsible world.

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