China has an environmental problem. No, I’m not talking about weathering huge dust storms, opening one coal power plant a week, surpassing the U.S. as the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, or flooding ecosystems with huge dam projects. I’m talking about something serious: If pollution does not get better in Beijing in time for the 2008 Olympics, the long-distance track events may be canceled.

According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, “China’s new middle class in love with cars — big cars“:

The auto boom has dire implications for next summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing because it contributes to the noxious cap of smog that makes it the world’s most polluted capital city.

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Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee president, suggested at a ceremony in Beijing on Aug. 8 that events such as long-distance races might have to be postponed if the smog remains too heavy a year from now. “My concerns, which I believe are the concerns of everyone, are the climate and the environment, and especially the air environment,” he said.

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This weekend, in a test of the drastic anti-pollution measures expected for the eve of the Games next year, Beijing authorities are banning half of all vehicles from city streets, alternating days between odd-numbered and even-numbered license plates.

Also, Chinese car ownership is projected to increase dramatically:

The biggest car-buying boom in world history is under way in China as vast numbers of people join the middle class, abandon their bicycles for autos and sport utility vehicles — and, in the process, add to China’s already fast-growing emissions of greenhouse gases … total car ownership is expected to surpass the U.S. level by 2025.

There is a sliver of hope that the growth of public transit may at least keep pace with the growth of cars:

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In the past seven years, Shanghai has built five subway lines covering 80 miles, carrying 2 million passengers per day, and 170 miles more are under construction. Auto license plates are limited by quota and sold by auction to the highest bidders, fetching prices as high as 50,000 yuan, or $6,700.

Also, according to the Chinese government, by 2020 Beijing will have the largest metro system in the world.

So what happened to the bicycles? According to a Chinese government story about bicycles in China, in 2000, on average, each Chinese family had 1.63 bicycles, which fell to 1.2 in 2005. But that’s still a lot of bikes. In addition, according to the SF Chronicle article, “Shanghai authorities have spearheaded use of the electric bicycle — a contraption that can be recharged at home and allows the user to go about 10 miles per hour.”

Like much else in China, there is a race on between a sustainable model — in this case, a transportation system based on bicycles and public transit — and a model contributing to environmental collapse and oil shortages; that is, an automobile-centered system. The fate of China, and perhaps much of the fate of the planet, may rest on the outcome of this long-distance race.