Its green medal hopes are lost but Beijing must race on

Beijing made many promises to secure the 2008 Olympics - hostages to fortune, as it turned out, as the date approached. Some greater press and political freedoms, for instance, have clearly not been honoured: as Amnesty International pointed out yesterday, there has been more, not less, repression as the games approach. But other promises that may remain unfulfilled do not reflect bad faith so much as the scale of the task. When the world's most polluted country promised a green Olympics, it was a commitment of truly daunting ambition. If the city falls short, it won't be for want of trying.

Imagine, for a moment, that Britain had made an international commitment to clean the air in Birmingham or Leeds in the 1880s, or even London in 1950, two years before the last great fog killed at least 4,000 people. That the air in the UK is now cleaner is partly due to the legislation that resulted from that disaster but, equally importantly, a side-effect of the world's industrial production shifting from developed countries in the west to developing countries such as China. If China is now the world's factory, the penalty is that China now produces the world's smog.

It took Britain 150 years to begin cleaning up the legacy of industrialisation. China's recent industrial revolution is less than 20 years old. As of now, the only way the air quality promises will be met is by shutting down much of north China for the duration. But in the longer term, Beijing's 15 million residents may have reason to be grateful, not just for two weeks of relatively clean air in August, but for an accelerated handbrake turn towards a safer development track.

The official newspaper China Daily recently estimated the direct costs of the Beijing Olympics at $40bn - a conservative sum in the view of most analysts. Even at that level, if China wins the expected 40 gold medals during the games, each will represent an investment of $1bn. Over the past decade, Beijing has spent more than $15bn on green initiatives, so what will have been gained, beyond the satisfaction of being sports top dog?

Superficially, the city looks good - cleaned and greened by tens of thousands of migrant workers. Roses planted on central reservations are hastily replaced at the first sign of wilt. Grass has been laid in urban spaces, something previously unseen in Beijing's near-desert climate. Water has been commandeered from surrounding provinces to flush the city's modernised new public lavatories and to provide a seductive - andmisleading - display of water plenty.

Even if the roses die by September, much will have been gained. For the past 30 years, Beijing's frenetic modernisation has followed an outdated and unsustainable path - a city of the car, strangled by multiplying ringroads and congested urban motorways, the bicycles and buses that used to predominate pushed off the road by private vehicles. In earlier times, heavy industry plant was situated in the capital, and Mao Zedong would point proudly to smokestacks as evidence of progress. The public health legacy of both phases of development has been disastrous, with air pollutants routinely many times over World Health Organisation safety levels.

According to an Olympic audit by Greenpeace, the cleanup has done much to change that model. More than 1,300 new cars hit the streets every day, but emissions regulations now match Euro IV, the toughest in the world. Factories have been closed, upgraded or relocated. Four new subway lines have been built, and Olympic facilities, at 20%, exceed the 15% target for renewable energy that is a national ambition in the current five-year plan. The city's waste water treatment, previously remarkable by its absence, has been upgraded; domestic coal-burning reduced; and the largest natural gas bus fleet in the world will serve Beijing during the games.

Impressive as this achievement is, it may not be sufficient, and further emergency measures will have be enacted to save Beijing's face: more cars will be taken off the road - already only half are supposed to drive on any given day - and industries in the neighbouring provinces of Hebei and Shandong, as well as the giant neighbouring municipality of Tianjin, will be ordered to take a two-week holiday.

Were this only a domestic event, the authorities might take refuge in silence - but with thousands of journalists in town, many equipped with independent monitoring equipment, Beijing's air is more than just a health hazard. This has not been a good year for China's international image, and now the triumphalism will play primarily to a population worked into a mood of truculent nationalism by the earlier public relations disasters. Any failure to meet the promised air-quality standards has high symbolic importance, and international criticism risks being read as further evidence of international ill-will. But Beijing - and China - could win lasting respect by building on the achievements of the Olympic cleanup and demonstrating that what matters to the government is the health of China's citizens, rather than this brief moment in the global spotlight.

Isabel Hilton, the editor of