ZIBO, China — While Olympic visitors from around the world get a firsthand glimpse this month at China's pollution problems, a homegrown movement is racing to ward off what many here predict could be epic environmental meltdown.
Hundreds of millions of Chinese are taking the first steps to turn the tide, fueled by growing unhappiness with the plunging quality of life caused by out-of-control environmental degradation.
Industrial districts such as Zibo in coastal Shandong province are closing heavily polluting factories and encouraging the development of cleaner industries. The effect of such efforts in Zibo, about 400 miles from the capital of Beijing, has been immediate, as the thick pall of smoke that used to cover the city just a year ago has disappeared.
Tens of millions of Chinese are also heating their water with rooftop solar water heaters, saving the electricity equivalent of 54 coal-fired power plants. Such facilities provide 80 percent of China's electricity and are among the dirtiest energy generators in the world.
Chinese developers are even planning the world's first eco-city designed from scratch on an island near the city of Shanghai, which will feature electricity-generating windmills and solar-powered water taxis.
The new green movement marks a dramatic shift for a development-crazed country that has long placed economic gains over environmental protections. Priorities are changing, however, as Chinese consciousness grows about the environmental dangers ahead.
Yang Wei Hua, economic committee president for Zibo's industrial southern zone, said closing down polluters cost the city jobs, but municipal leaders didn't flinch.
"Of course, we're concerned about the impact on the economy, but we think it's worth it," Yang said. "It'll make us more creative. We need to learn from the United States and other developed countries about how to build cleaner, more creative, more high-tech industries."
Environmentalists say Chinese officials had no choice but to take urgent action in the face of the gathering storm.
While the country's economy has grown by nearly 10 percent every year over the past three decades, it's expanded on the backs of many dirty industries such as steel and chemical production and manufacturing.
The consequences have been dire. Sixteen of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China, the Washington-based environmentalist group the Worldwatch Institute found. China recently surpassed the United States as the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.
Some 750,000 Chinese die prematurely every year because of pollution, according to the World Bank, and environmental degradation and resource depletion could cut China's growth rate by half or more.
"At the central government level, there is very clear awareness that China is facing an environmental crisis," said Lila Buckley, a U.S. environmentalist who has worked with the Beijing-based nonprofit group the Global Environment Institute.
"There's an awareness that environmental problems lead to social conflict, and that's always a concern for the government here."
Beijing's national government has responded with what Buckley said were "progressive" environmental measures such as requiring environmental and social impact studies be performed before building projects receive approval. China's vehicle emission standards are also tougher than those in the United States.
Enforcement of such measures, however, remains spotty, Buckley said.
China's environmental problems have been in the spotlight this month as the Chinese go all-out to clean Beijing's polluted air as it hosts the Summer Olympic Games.
Government regulators have barred many of the city's cars and trucks from circulating and have shut down nearby factories, with limited impact on pollution. Since the games' Aug. 8 start, days of soupy gray air have only occasionally given way to rain and clear skies.
Officials in Zibo have had better luck since enacting similar measures early this year, and residents of this industrial city reported what they said was a miraculous environmental resurrection.
"Walking down the street before, you couldn't even see until the end of the block it was so dark and hazy," said longtime Zibo resident Liu Xu Liao as he strolled through the center of town on a cool, breezy Friday night. "Of course, this is much better. What's the point of living here with all that pollution?"
City officials pulled off the turnaround by shuttering dozens of the region's worst polluters and energy hogs, which included steel plants and production lines for everything from ceramics to chemical products. Zibo municipality, home to some 4 million people, was also helped by its geography: It's built on flatlands rather than amid smog-trapping mountains as Beijing is.
Even before this year's campaign, which officials said was not related to the Olympics, City Hall was already demanding that dirty industries improve their environmental standards or switch to a cleaner product.
That's how a 700-person neighborhood collective here stopped producing roofing tiles and shifted to manufacturing high-tech fibrous building panels in 2004. Neighborhood head Sun Hou Nian said producing the lighter, less resource-intensive building panels cut down on emissions.
As it turns out, the switch also made economic sense: Hundreds of the panels now line subway stations in Beijing and Shanghai, and the extra revenue has turned the neighborhood into one of Zibo's poshest.
Residents, who were wheat and corn farmers just three decades ago, recently demolished their old roofing tile factory and planted in its place rows of poplar trees, which will be used in paper production.
"The whole world is trying to reduce pollution, to fight global warming, so we're doing our part," Sun said. "We all agree that protecting the environment is important."