Beijing, March 12: China promised clean air for this year's Beijing Olympics again on Wednesday, two days after marathon record holder Haile Gebrselassie said he would not compete in the race because of fears about pollution.
Beijing announced that its embattled State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) had been upgraded to ministry status, but experts said it would need wider powers and a bigger budget to have more impact than its predecessor. Rapid industrialisation over the past three decades has laid waste to China's fragile ecosystems, sparking social unrest and crimping economic growth.
EPA officials have long lamented that well-intended central government directives fail to filter down to, or are ignored by growth-hungry local governments from whom environmental authorities often depend on for funds and resources.
Wu Xiaoqing, a deputy head of SEPA, said the new ministry status was a "significant step in history" for China's environmental protection efforts.
"This shows the central government's high level attention to the environment and China's willingness to strengthen environmental protection work," Wu told a small group of reporters.
"It doesn't matter whether it is in supervision or management or enforcement, our capabilities will be strengthened in all areas."
Wu said that China had "made a huge achievement" in stalling the trend of worsening pollution, but conceded that the country had not turned the corner. "Eliminating high-polluting industries is a permanent problem," Wu said.
"China is growing at 10 percent a year... It lacks electricity. That we can keep (China's pollution) down to current levels is an amazing achievement," Wu said.
Wu said he was confident a scheme to cut industrial pollutants in Beijing and five surrounding provinces would provide clean enough air for athletes during the Olympics, and said industries and people affected would be compensated.
"The Olympics is not just for Beijing. It's for the whole country," Wu said. "There will be compensation."
Wu also denied media reports that Beijing Olympic organisers had manipulated pollution data to improve its pollution readings.
"I believe there is no need for suspicion. I believe the data is correct."
Beijing on Wednesday also said it would suspend all earthwork construction projects on windy days from March 20, Xinhua news agency reported, citing the city's environmental protection bureau. A formal construction ban would also begin on July 21 and last until Sept. 20.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi also affirmed that Beijing's air, notoriously polluted by construction dust, car fumes and industrial and power emissions, would improve.
"The air quality will only get better and better in Beijing," Yang told a news conference.
International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said last year that events such as the marathons and distance cycling could be rescheduled if conditions were too bad.