As it gears up to host the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing has been awarded an unwelcome new accolade: the air pollution capital of the world.
Satellite data have revealed that the city is one of the worst environmental victims of China's spectacular economic growth, which has brought with it air- pollution levels that are blamed for more than 400,000 premature deaths a year.
According to the European Space Agency, Beijing and its neighboring provinces have the planet's worst levels of nitrogen dioxide, which can cause fatal damage to the lungs.
An explosive increase in car ownership is blamed for a sharp rise in unhealthy emissions. In the past five years the number of vehicles clogging Beijing's streets has more than doubled to nearly 2.5 million. It is expected to top the 3 million mark by the start of the Olympics in 2008.
China is the world's second-largest producer of greenhouse gases, and the World Bank has warned it is home to 16 of the planet's 20 most air-polluted cities.
WORST TO COME
According to the European satellite data, pollutants in the sky over China have increased by about 50 percent during the past 10 years.
Senior officials warn that worse is still to come. At a recent seminar Zhang Lijun (張力軍), deputy director of the environmental protection agency, said that pollution levels could more than quadruple within 15 years, unless the country can slow the rise in energy consumption and automobile use.
A recently published study by the Chinese Academy on Environmental Planning blamed air pollution for 411,000 premature deaths -- mostly from lung and heart-related diseases -- in 2003. It said that a third of China's urban residents were exposed to harmful levels of pollution.
More than 100 million people live in cities such as Beijing, where the air is considered "very dangerous."
Conservation groups say acid rain falls on a third of China's territory and 70 percent of rivers and lakes are so full of toxins they can no longer be used for drinking water.
China's environmental strategy will be under discussion at a G8 meeting on climate change to be held in London this week.
Energy and environment ministers from the G8 nations and the developing world are to thrash out ways of developing sustainable clean-energy sources and climate-change strategy.
But environmental groups fear the meeting in London will simply produce hot air unless ministers agree on firm proposals for a UN conference in Montreal.
The Kyoto treaty legally commits signatories to trim their output of six greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, by 2012 compared with 1990 levels. However, its impact has been limited by the US opting out.
"They should reiterate their commitments to Kyoto and emissions reductions and the carbon markets created by them," said Steve Sawyer, Greenpeace International's climate policy adviser.
"Unless they're binding, hard commitments, it's just wishy-washy talk of voluntary partnerships and fluffy agreements," Sawyer said.
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