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Beijing bid goes 'green'

Beijing smog
Beijing is making environment issues a top priority in its bid for the Games  

By CNN's Nic Hopkins

BEIJING, China (CNN) -- Dirty, smoggy, drought-ridden and congested are not the words Beijing officials want used to describe their city in its quest for the 2008 Olympics.

Like every city hoping to host the games, Beijing is using an aggressive environmental program as one of the pillars of its bid.

So hard is the Beijing bid committee trying to sell its environmental credentials that it has named the proposed main games venue the "Olympic Green".

City officials plan to spend billions of dollars improving Beijing's environment over the first half of the decade, with the goal of eventually turning 40 percent of the giant city into parks and waterways.

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A scale model of the bid committee's vision of Beijing in 2008 shows a city swathed in green and blue.

But, as the only city from a developing nation among the top three contenders for 2008, Beijing has many more environmental hurdles to clear than key rivals Paris and Toronto.

It faces regular bouts of drought, has a desert creeping up on it at a rate of several meters a year, endures suffocating dust storms, and is crisscrossed with clogged arterial highways.

"The truth is Beijing and China have a lot of problems, but we are improving," Friends of Nature's Liang Congjie told CNN.

"We are much more in need of a good living environment."

Congjie, who was consulted for the 2008 games bid, supports the push to bring the Olympics to China because he says it would help speed the 'greening' of Beijing.

He says win or lose, Beijing is already on the path to improving its environment.

"But if the Olympic bid is unsuccessful, the driving force to push for improvement might be weakened," he says.

"Regardless of whether the Olympic bid is successful, we have to improve our environment and urban planning. The Olympics can speed up the process. That's why I support the Olympics."

"As an international city, nobody would come here if the sky is always gray and everybody says it's a dirty city," he says.

Complaints on the rise

"The people are more and more aware of environmental protection and are not happy with the environment in Beijing. The number of complaints to the government from the people is rising."

The Beijing bid claims the support of some 20 non-government environmental groups, which collectively signed an "Action Plan for a Green Olympics".

Beijing's vice-mayor and bid committee member Liu Jingmin says the efforts to improve Beijing's environment will press ahead, regardless of whether the Olympics come to China or not.

"We are now launching a 10-year environmental protection plan, and one of the priorities is greenification," he says.

Among the schemes included in the plan is one to build a 'greenification area' of 100 square kilometers (62 square miles) between Beijing and 10 neighboring satellite cities.

Meanwhile, wide 'green belts' will be built around five major roads and 10 rivers inside the city limits, requiring the planting of millions of trees.

The 'lungs' of the Olympic bid, a 760-hectare artificial forest, will be erected near the games village.

Green infrastructure

Transport will also be improved, as will the quality of Beijing's often-unpleasant air through a strategy to introduce cleaner energy sources such as natural gas, solar and even geo-thermal energy.

Bid documents say 90 percent of buses and 70 percent of taxis will be fuelled by clean energy by 2007, while some 292 liquefied petroleum gas stations are planned.

Liu Jingmin
Liu Jingmin announced a 10-year environmental plan  

City planners also intend to push much of its public transport underground, with hopes to significantly increase the volume of passengers on its subway from the present 1.3 million daily commuters. Win or lose the race for the 2008 games, Liu says "the greenification will definitely continue."

"The greenification of Beijing is for the well-being of its people. No matter if Beijing gets the Olympics or not, the well-being of the people always comes first."

"The greenification plan is following the planned schedule, it's funding has been allocated, so we will for sure continue with the plan," he says.

But while the money may be locked in, other resources may be lacking.

Water shortage

Perhaps the biggest problem Beijing faces as thousands of people migrate there each year is a dramatic shortage of water.

Some observers say the problem might be worsened by excessive watering to 'greenify' the city in preparation for 2008.

Beijing traffic
Beijing hopes most of the city's traffic will move underground  

"I don't think Beijing's water problem is solved," says Liang. "The leadership does not have the right attitude on this subject and does not have a long-term plan."

"Take the greenification of Beijing as an example. It takes a lot of water to grow lawn. And Beijing has a water shortage problem. How can we afford to use so much water to water the lawns?"

Many environmentalists say the millions of dollars used to bring the Olympics to Beijing would be better spent on simply making Beijing a cleaner place to live.

"I would have voted against Beijing's bid if I were a regular voter," says Liang.

"The reasons are simple. You see, there are so many students running on the streets of Beijing. Why not put the money (for the Olympics) into building tracks and fields for the students in Beijing, so they don't have to run on the street any more."

"It's very bad for their health when they are running and breathing into the exhaust fumes from vehicles."

Liang says "if you used the money for the Olympics to improve our schools' sports facilities, China would definitely be a nation full of great athletes in 20 years. The number of gold medals would definitely top other nations."

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