Heralded as the most eco-friendly Olympic meet yet, the 2012 London summer games can't compete with Beijing's 2008 carbon emissions reduction in transportation.
Though the English government made sustainability a centerfold of Olympic planning, promising to recycle 99 percent of waste generated during the construction of the Olympic Park, the games still haven't quite reached Beijing proportions. Overall, the Chinese saved more than 4 million tons of carbon dioxide in a little under a month, scientists calculate.
The royal barge Gloriana carries the Olympic flame along the river Thames, ahead of the 2012 Summer Olympics, on the final day of the Torch Relay, Friday, July 27, 2012, in London. The opening ceremonies for the 2012 London Olympics will be held Friday evening. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Responding to complaints from Olympic trainers who said poor air quality would hinder performance, the Chinese government placed a temporary moratorium reducing the number of vehicles within Beijing. The result was an estimated 66,000-ton reduction in carbon dioxide emissions per day, according to a study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
That is the equivalent of taking 2 million U.S. cars off the road for a day. It also represents about 0.25 percent of the emissions countries need to cut worldwide in order to avoid a significant increase in global temperature, according to best-case-scenario models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
"The quarter of a percent doesn't sound like a large number, but Beijing is just one city," said Helen Worden, a project scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the leading author of the study. "If you consider projections for urban populations, that kind of reduction would really make a difference in global emissions."
London, however, is nowhere close. Though the 2012 games will also be the first to measure their carbon footprint, according to the U.N. Environment Programme, they cannot beat China.
What worked in China may not work elsewhere
But a Beijing-to-London comparison is apples to oranges, Worden said. For one, London has had traffic restrictions in place for several years, making it difficult to measure the same sort of dramatic change. Furthermore, London's weather is notoriously gray and rainy, which prevents satellites from taking the kinds of measurements available over Beijing.
To come up with the figures, Worden and her team analyzed carbon monoxide levels in the atmosphere that were recorded by NASA's EOS-Terra Satellite for 12 days in August 2008. Poor weather conditions prevented satellites from gleaning data during the entire study, which lasted 29 days. To fill in the gaps, scientists substituted information from carbon monoxide inventories provided by Tsinghua University in Beijing. That compilation was fed into a carbon monoxide model engineered by the University of Iowa.
The lack of firsthand measurements means the study results are uncertain. Thus, figures should be considered approximations, Worden said.
Despite such high levels of uncertainty, the study is the first of its kind and can be utilized as a jumping-off point for further research, Worden said. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association's carbon dioxide monitoring network did not have the technological infrastructure in place to record Chinese emissions, according to Pieter Tans, a climate researcher with NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory. Rarely do scientists get the opportunity to measure a before-and-after effect in a large, urban environment, Worden added.
The social implications of the study are far-reaching. If China decreased emissions in Beijing, then it stands to reason that the United States should be able to use similar tactics when focusing on urban areas stateside. However, Worden was quick to caution against making assumptions. The American population, as a whole, is a more individualistic than that of China. What is right for one culture may not necessarily translate to another, she said, especially since climate change is such a partisan issue within the United States.
"Our study does not suggest any sort of policy direction," Worden said. "I think that's really up to people who are looking at city planning and policymakers."
Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.
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