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Beijing smog clouds Olympic forecast

June's blue-sky tallies were the worst in seven years, but officials promise clear days for the Games.

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With exactly one year to go, Beijing is pulling out all the stops for the 2008 Summer Olympics, a sporting event billed as China's coming-out party.

Organizers say the construction frenzy that is reshaping this ancient city is well on track for completion, as are preparations to host more than 10,000 international athletes and millions of spectators during the three-week event.

The opening gala is timed for maximum good fortune, according to Chinese folklore: 8:08 p.m. on 8/8/08. Volunteers are lining up to help China put on a show of national pride and worldly ambition.

But Beijing's choking air pollution and the vagaries of summer skies are threatening to spoil the party. In recent months, a thick haze of auto emissions, swirling dust, and factory smoke has shrouded the city's rising skyline. Official "blue skies" tallies – a somewhat liberal definition of air quality – are running behind target this year. June was the worst month on record in seven years, with 15 days classified as substandard.

Still, that noxious cloud may well be gone by next August, along with the crush of cars that clog the city's roads. Olympics teams have been reassured that China has contingency plans to clear the air and ensure a cobalt-blue backdrop when the TV cameras pan skyward. Among the possible measures are restrictions on private cars, factory closures, and a building ban during the runup to the games.

The inexorable rise in China's car culture, spurred by massive government and private investment in the auto industry, presents a challenge to any clean-air campaign, as well as to ambitious targets to improve energy efficiency by 20 percent within three years. Long after the Olympics crowds leave, many of Beijing's 15 million-plus residents will aspire to own a car.

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