Beijing's Green Olympics?

Beijing Going Green - photos from www.iStockphoto.comIn just a few months, Beijing, China will host the 2008 Olympic Games. Spectators will see thrilling victories and agonizing defeats, as well as plenty of hype about the "green" Olympics. While images of adorable pandas and stories of China's efforts to conserve the species will be plentiful, the country's abysmal treatment of animals and the environment will continue to go unreported.

From the capturing, organ harvesting and killing of those who follow the ancient meditation practice of Falun Gong to China's occupation of Tibet, news of the country's human rights violations are receiving needed attention as the games approach. However, there is still a lack of news coverage concerning China's mistreatment of animals.

To raise awareness, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) has exposed some of the country's cruelest animal industries in the past several issues of the AWI Quarterly. Both human and non-human animals are suffering due to the Chinese government's actions. However, the lifelong confinement of bears in tiny cages, where they are milked of their bile daily for its use in traditional medicines, will not be shown on television. Nor will audiences witness captive tigers unskillfully tormenting and killing live prey to the delight of onlookers at massive tiger breeding farms run by Chinese entrepreneurs.

China is a large country with a unique, vibrant culture. With a booming economy and a productive population, it is emerging as one of the world's most powerful nations. Yet, with such power comes a responsibility to promulgate laws that protect basic human rights, promote sustainability, and ensure the humane treatment of all animals.

In the final installment of our series leading up to this summer's games, we will focus on the reality behind China's push to make Beijing the site of the first "green" Olympics.

What does it mean to be "green?" Ask 100 people and you'll probably get 100 different answers. For some, recycling the morning paper and installing energy efficient light bulbs is sufficient. For others, being green means going all the way-adopting a lifestyle that reduces one's environmental footprint on the planet. For China, promoting a green Olympics was key to the selection of Beijing as the host city for the 2008 Olympic Games. Fortunately, that decision was made in July 2001, giving Beijing seven years to implement its green Olympic plan. However, with only a few months until the opening ceremonies, the plan is not yet complete.

According to an October 2007 report from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Beijing has made "significant strides" to improve its environmental record. With over $12 billion US invested, upgrades have been made to Beijing's waste management and water treatment systems and its transportation system. The city has also accelerated the phase out period for ozone depleting chemicals and installed energy efficient appliances at buildings and sports venues.

In preparation for the games, alternative energy sources such as solar power, geothermal and heat pump technologies have been extensively used for the lighting and heating of stadiums and common areas. Reclaimed sewage water will be used for heating and cooling systems to save electricity, while rainwater harvesting and intelligent irrigation systems will help save water.

UNEP reports that up to 430 natural gas-powered buses have been added to the Olympic fleet, and Olympic organizers claim to have purchased 2,810 new "environment-friendly buses," including 900 diesel-powered, 250 natural gas-powered, and 50 lithium battery-powered vehicles. New bus and rail lines have expanded the capacity of Beijing's public transportation system to 19 million passengers per day, but at present, less than half of that capacity is used.

Extensive use of a wood and recycled plastic composite has been made for decorative facades, floors and picnic tables to reduce demand for timber. At Olympic venues, organizers have set a goal of recycling 50 percent of the waste (paper, metals and plastics). For landscaping, drought resistant and indigenous species have been planted around the various Olympic stadiums and other buildings; a large Olympic Forest Park containing landscaped hills and water features serves as the "green lung" for the Olympic Village and surrounding boroughs.

Despite this progress, there is much more to be done. Air quality, which is of great concern to the athletes, is better, but still poor. The closing, retrofitting, and/or relocation of highly polluting factories away from the city has reduced some key pollutants such as sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide, but with over a thousand new vehicles registered daily in Beijing, and with coal remaining a key form of energy, some pollutants continue to exceed World Health Organization Air Quality Guidelines.

In fact, air quality concerns have prompted world record holder Haile Gebselassie of Ethiopia to forgo competing in the Olympic marathon to avoid putting his health at risk. Other countries have elected to establish athlete accommodations in Japan or Korea to allow their athletes to prepare for the events without being exposed to such pollutants. The International Olympic Committee is also prepared to postpone certain endurance events, if necessary, due to air pollution concerns.

Meanwhile, critics have questioned the overall impact of relocating some factories, the proposed shutdown of other factories, and the prohibition on the operation of a sizable number of the city's private vehicles during the games, saying these acts amount to little more than window dressing on a serious environmental problem. Given the city's geographical location surrounded on three sides by mountains, the presence of highly polluting factories in surrounding areas and the vagaries of prevailing winds, air quality may remain at unhealthy levels during the games.

To suggest that Beijing's efforts to make the Olympics green have failed would be wrong. Progress in cleaning up Beijing has been made, and considering the starting point, in some cases, progress has been substantial. Beijing has long been ranked as one of the most polluted cities in the world. Its successful Olympic bid has helped Beijing immensely, with urban sewage treatment doubling since 2001, the use of natural gas jumping nearly 40 percent through the conversion of dirty coal-fired furnaces and boilers, and the planting of millions of trees.

Unfortunately, this progress has been offset by a boom in urban construction, including new office buildings and apartments, mostly unrelated to the Olympics. The resulting skyline may be impressive, but it requires significant energy and produces enormous amounts of pollution.

According to The New York Times-which compared the city to an athlete trying to get into shape by walking on a treadmill while eating double cheeseburgers-Beijing's goal of reducing coal consumption has not been met, as coal use peaked in 2006. Moreover, with over 3 million vehicles using Beijing's roads and another 400,000 new cars and trucks being added each year, traffic jams and vehicle pollution
have worsened.

With sulfur and nitrogen dioxide levels reduced, the number of "Blue Sky" days in Beijing have increased from 100 in 1998 to 244 in 2007. Still, all is not well. A Blue Sky day may signify an improvement in air quality, but particulate matter (soot, dust, dirt, smoke) attributable to construction, industry and cars is still highly present and has risen in recent years.

Beijing's environmental problems are a microcosm of the problems ubiquitous throughout China. As a consequence of past political decisions, China's environmental health continues to be sacrificed to promote economic growth. Polluted rivers and lakes, dropping underground water tables, expanding deserts, the massive release of untreated industrial and residential effluents, choking smog, inadequate laws, political corruption, and lax enforcement have all contributed to this environmental catastrophe. Though China has embarked on a massive tree planting exercise that has reversed its forest loss, its insatiable demand for imported wood is decimating forests in many Asian and African countries. Moreover, the Chinese government has not addressed its other environmental crises that have significantly harmed animals, people and the environment.

Rampant development pressures, pollution and hunting are devastating plant and animal populations and their habitats. Scientists have stated that almost 40 percent of all mammal species, 70 percent of non-flowering plants, and 86 percent of flowering plants in China are endangered. Conservationists face an uphill battle, as they must convince the government that protecting wildlife is important, as well as counter the common mentality that animals are merely commodities.

It is clear that Olympic organizers have gone to great lengths to "go green." Given China's environmental record, will these improvements spark the start of a countrywide push to become more eco-friendly, or will they be forgotten after the world leaves Beijing? Only time will tell.



Beijing's Shameful Cat Slaughter

While China has made some measure of progress on the environmental front in Beijing, animal welfare issues have not been addressed. Only a year after the country's controversial slaughter of many thousands of dogs in response to a concern over rabies, the United Kingdom's Daily Mail reported in March that cats are being rounded up in Beijing due to supposed disease concerns.

China's leaders believe cats pose a serious urban health risk and may have contributed to the 2003 outbreak of the lethal respiratory virus SARS. Notices have been posted throughout the city urging residents to give up their cats. In response, cats are being dumped on the streets, where they are captured by special collection teams, stuffed into tiny wire cages, and carted off to holding facilities. Since July 2007, tens of thousands of the city's estimated 500,000 cats have reportedly been collected.

Though officials claim people can adopt cats from 12 facilities in the city, few can access these sites. Even when cats are rescued, they are so sick that most die. According to activists working to save the cats, the government will not give sick cats lethal injections, despite the rapid spread of disease in the facilities. Instead, they wait for the animals to die slowly in agony and distress.

If the cats do not die from disease, they may be killed for food. Despite the government's claim that cats pose a health risk, there has been a surge in the number of Beijing restaurants serving cat meat. Cats are also being shipped to the town of Guangzhou in southern China, which is infamous for restaurants serving cats, dogs, and other exotic animals.


If you plan to travel to Beijing for the Olympics, there are several things you should keep in mind. In restaurants, you may encounter turtle soup, a dish that is contributing to the decimation of wild turtles in Asia and even the United States. The soup could be made from a turtle captured in a Texas pond, a Florida swamp or a Georgia lake-states that have imposed or are considering restrictions on turtle captures due to the significant export of live turtles to China.

Shark fin soup and fish dinners made from imperiled species such as wild grouper, snapper and humphead wrasse may also be found at restaurants in Beijing. In some areas, cats, dogs and exotic animals may be served.

When shopping, please avoid all products made with fur, including fur trim and products labeled as faux fur. China's fur farms are notorious for their cruelty to furbearing animals; animals live in small, cramped cages, only to be pulled out and smashed to the ground. This cruel alternative to stunning may not be successful, in which case the animals are skinned alive.

One may also find carved ivory made from the tusks of elephants killed illegally to satisfy an increasing demand for ivory trinkets and other products. China's demand for wildlife products, including ivory, contributes to the slaughter of at least 23,000 African elephants each year.

If you witness animal abuse on your trip, try to document it, and contact the local authorities in Beijing as soon as possible. Please also report the abuse to AWI.