China Makes Strides in War with Pollution

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Beijing has made massive strides in cleaning up the city in the lead up to the Olympics. But China's war with pollution is only just beginning.

It was one of the greatest challenges in Olympic history: Could Beijing, a city notorious for its smog, clean up its act in time for the games?

The government spent over $17 billion over a 10-year period to curb pollution. In recent weeks, they've shut down factories and cut Beijing's traffic in half.

Residents say the environment has greatly improved.

"The air is very clean. It is much better than before," a Beijing resident said.

But even the 50 million newly planted flowers can't mask China's ongoing pollution challenges.

Sixteen of the world's 20 worst polluted cities are in China, and only one percent of the country's city-dwellers that would be considered safe by European standards.

Judith Shapiro, author of Mao's War Against Nature, says China's air pollution isn't its only cause for concern.

"The World Bank has estimated that there are three quarters of a million premature deaths simply due to air pollution," she said. "Something like 70 percent of China's waterways are severely polluted, something like half of all Chinese people have no access to clean drinking water," she said.

Despite these health costs, many jobs depend on these high-polluting factories.

"There are many guys like us. Although we have to breathe dirty air working on construction sites or factories, we don't have other expertise. This allows us to make a living, which is good," another Beijing resident said.

Thirteen hundred new cars hit the roads each day in Beijing alone, but less than a quarter of residents own a vehicle.

"I think it's important for Chinese people to have cars, because having cars means we've made great progress and our living standard has improved," said a resident.

But China might not have to choose between development and the environment.

"We can look for win-win solutions so that Chinese can develop the best technologies, the cleanest technologies," Shapiro said.

Striking the right balance between industrial growth and environmental protection presents an Olympic-sized challenge.

While China has a difficult path ahead, it also has an opportunity to become a global leader in protecting the environment.

*Original broadcast August 13, 2008.

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