War is being waged on pollution, dust, road emissions and acid rain It may seem a remote dream to the red-eyed commuter stuck in a traffic jam on Beijing's third ring road looking out at a toxin-filled sky, but the Chinese government has promised an environmentally clean and green city when the Games roll into town. 'One of the themes for Beijing 2008 is a Green Olympics' is the claim on the Beijing Olympics website. 'Hosting of the Games in Beijing will serve as a 'catalyst' for environmental improvement and help promote sustainable development in Beijing and China.' The Olympics committee says priority is being given to environmental protection in the planning, design and construction of Olympic venues and facilities. Judging by the progress already made, these claims are entirely credible, but the environment in Beijing is still poor. China's remarkable economic growth has meant a lot of new factories, which increase the amount of energy required, putting a strain on natural resources and dirtying the air and water. Acid rain falls on a third of China's land and nearly all the rivers running through its cities are seriously polluted. Three-quarters of the people in China's monitored cities breathe unclean air and 13,000 die each year from heart disease caused by air pollution. One recent report claimed that children in big cities are exposed to pollutants equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. During the 1990s, when Beijing was competing for the Games, a story did the rounds that the authorities would close factories and turn off the coal-fired boilers at state-run dormitories to lower local pollution and impress visiting Olympic delegates. But the focus these days is on bringing about an environmentally friendly balance between consumption and growth in time for the Games. Both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are very public fans of 'sustainable development'. The government plans to spend up to 54 billion yuan on environmental projects in the run-up to 2008, while China's water and waste-water treatment industry has been allocated a 700 billion yuan budget under the country's current five-year plan. One of the more public signs that the government is gearing up for a 'Green Games' is the frenzy of tree-planting. Over 10 million trees have been planted around the city to counteract waves of fine dust from the Gobi Desert, 240km to the north. The plan is for 70 per cent of Beijing's mountainous outskirts to be covered in trees by 2007 and authorities will also develop more than 23,000 hectares of green belts along the major rivers and roads and 12,000 hectares of forest strips to separate the city from the surrounding countryside. Also on-going is the construction of 50 tree-planted green areas in downtown Beijing, each covering over 10,000 square metres. Plans for improving Beijing's environment also include demolition of unapproved and temporary buildings, stronger control of outdoor advertising, new garbage and domestic waste facilities, underground cabling and street beautification. Emphasis is being put on preventing air pollution and protecting drinking water sources. The government has also stepped up the work of the country's top environmental watchdog, which is known as Sepa (State Environmental Protection Administration). Sepa has started checking companies to gauge their environmental records and has inspected 4,420 companies in Beijing since deciding to step up protection last year. Earlier this year, Sepa 'outed' 116 companies in the capital for their shoddy performance on the environmental front. Sepa said the companies polluted too much, ignored environmental rules for building projects or failed to pass inspections. The companies were fined and told to get their acts together. Beijing is number 28 on a list of 113 major Chinese cities which Sepa tested for air quality. China has signed numerous deals with countries like the United States and Singapore to increase co-operation in environmental protection and sustainable development and jointly develop clean energy technologies in anticipation of the 'Green Olympics'. Hundreds of factories are being moved from the city centre to the distant outskirts to try to keep a lid on industrial pollution and the government is trying to introduce a sharp drop in the use of dirtier coal in an attempt to reduce air pollution. There are two million cars in greater Beijing, 70 per cent privately owned, and this is expected to nearly double by the time of the Games. Around 1,000 new cars a day are hitting the streets. The city is encircled by five huge 'ring road' motorways and development has led to massive urban destruction. By 2008 the total length of Beijing's expressways is expected to have tripled to 718km. To combat the choking car fumes, China has introduced tough emissions standards, which will hopefully cut emissions by 80 per cent by 2007. The government has taken some steps to cut private traffic, such as by making drivers' licences more expensive and increasing car registration costs, but the main focus will be on encouraging greater use of public transport. The city has two subway lines but it is building five new lines for the Games, for a total length of 114km and in September 2002, Beijing's first light railway system began running from the west of the city to its northern edge. Hundreds of new electric powered buses are in use and the capacity of bus services will rise to nearly 20 million people a day by 2007. Also, 90 per cent of buses and 70 per cent of taxis will use more environmentally friendly natural gas. The demise of the bicycle - once the main form of transport on the streets of urban China - has added to the environmental woes. There are still 10 million bicycles in Beijing, though less than two million are on the roads at any one time but the days of the ubiquitous push-bike are gone. Hein Verbruggen, chairman of the International Olympic Committee's Co-ordination Commission, reckons that Beijing should be able to meet its environmental goals. 'The city had a goal for environmental cleanup and our experts tell us that it is on its way to achieving this,' he has said.