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Beijing Olympics a Model for Cleaner Air

Restrictions on motor vehicles before the 2008 Games improved the city’s air quality, suggesting similar sustained measures could greatly reduce global emissions.

Jul 27, 2012
Edyta Zielinska

Beijing reduced its carbon dioxide emissions during the 2008 Olympic games by 24,000 metric tons per day, as compared to measurements taken at the same time in the previous year, according to a new study by researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Colorado. Overall emissions still reached 96,000 metric tons daily, but researchers said that if several other cities around the world generated sustained reductions of that amount, it could be possible to reduce global emissions enough to slow climate warming, preventing a temperature rise that would affect society.

Beijing achieved this feat by enforcing strict limitations on motor vehicle use and industry. Car owners were only allowed to drive into the city every other day, thereby reducing city traffic from private vehicles by 50 percent. The city also suspended construction projects and limited some industrial operations.

“The Beijing Olympics allowed us to actually measure what happens when people drive much less, and it turns out that it makes quite a substantial difference to our climate,” lead author Helen Worden said in a press release. The researchers say that their study does not address the feasibility of applying such restrictions over the long term.

While many Olympic host cities change their traffic patterns and other urban logistics in preparation for the Games, Worden says her group’s methodology to measure the effects would be difficult to apply in London. Their atmospheric readings relied on an instrument called MOPITT, for Measurements of Pollution in the Troposphere, which cannot obtain measurements on cloudy days. According the Worden, the MOPITT would not be able to record sufficient data in the notoriously overcast city.

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