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Beijing steps up battle against smog

By Adrienne Mong, NBC News Producer

BEIJING – Twenty-two days before the Olympic Games open here, the capital is awash in smog – an unseasonably thick haze that seems part pollution, part humidity. 

Adrienne Mong / NBC News
A typical morning seen from a residential high-rise overlooking Beijing's Third Ring Road.

And while Chinese authorities say the atmosphere has been better than expected, they are taking measures this weekend that hopefully will ease the muddy, gray haze that has stifled the city's residents for the past six weeks.

Beijing's government said it has spent around $20 billion to improve its air quality, deploying a variety of emissions-reducing measures such as cutting fares for public transport; converting coal-fired heaters to electric or other clean-fuel ones; imposing new vehicle-exhaust standards that match those in Western Europe; and shutting down or relocating factories in the capital.

Officials have even brought in more green, literally. They've invested $1.12 billion to build the enormous Olympic Forest Park, on the edge of the Olympic Village. Not only does it help buffer the notorious sandstorms that sweep over Beijing, the park should help clean the air by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing more oxygen.

But despite these efforts, the haze in June and early July was the thickest many Beijing natives had seen in a while.

Adrienne Mong / NBC News
A not so typical morning seen from the same residential high-rise overlooking Beijing's Third Ring Road.

Add to that an unusually high level of humidity that, for weeks, ended each day with a sudden downpour around 7 p.m. The rain – not common to Beijing this early in the summer – prompted a few people to speculate how many cloud-seeding missiles the Meteorological Bureau might be firing into the air ahead of the Games.

As it turned out, they were right. Beijing's meteorological experts ran a weather drill over several days in early July to "dispel clouds" and clear the skies. 

But the haze persisted.

So much so that Reuters Television decided earlier this month to launch a daily "Beijing Smogwatch."

"Dear Clients," said a Reuters advisory, "Persistent smog over Olympic host Beijing's skies and a massive algae bloom in sailing venue Qingdao have highlighted China's environmental concerns a month ahead of the Games. Reuters will run daily smogwatch pictures until The Games begin."

And so Monday through Friday, the news agency has been broadcasting up to a minute of footage of Beijing smog to its subscribers. 

Not surprisingly, it's been pretty much the same video: The city cloaked in smog.

Adrienne Mong / NBC News
Beijing's Olympic set piece, the Bird's Nest stadium, blends in with the air.

But if the authorities here have their way the smogwatch could come to an end after this weekend, when construction sites around Beijing will suspend operations until Sept. 20. The work stoppage also extends to mines, chemical plants, and factories – even those in neighboring provinces.

And a new traffic control system launches on Sunday, whereby the 3.3 million private vehicles on the roads of Beijing will be cut by fifty per cent as cars with license plates ending in even numbers alternate every day with those with plates ending in odd numbers.