Remember the name Zhangjiakou.

Not only will the hard-to-spell city in China’s Hebei province co-host the 2022 Winter Olympics with Beijing, it will do so running mostly on renewable energy.

The day before the International Olympic Committee announced its decision, the Chinese government said Zhangjiakou would become the country’s first renewable energy pilot zone — meaning that by 2020 wind, solar and biomass will provide 55% of the city’s electricity.

That these major announcements overlapped wasn’t a coincidence. China, still reeling from the bad press it received for its airpocalypse a couple of years ago, is taking every opportunity it can get to show the world its air isn’t quite as polluted as it once was.

Last November, for instance, when President Obama and host of other world leaders arrived in Beijing for an economic summit, hundreds of polluting industrial plants in the area were switched off.

Next month, when the country celebrates the 70th anniversary of its World War II victory over Japan with an enormous parade in the capital, clear skies are a must.

And this time round there’s the Zhangjiakou project — which Chinese state media is calling a “low-carbon Olympic zone” that could “help Beijing resolve its air pollution problem”.

Lessons learned from ’08?

Lest we forget, China’s capital city hosted the Summer Olympics back in 2008. What did it do then, years before the smog-fuelled furore really kicked off?

Well it increased its vehicle emission standards, upgraded its coal-burning boilers, started using wind and solar power in earnest, and – perhaps most significantly – moved most of the polluting factories and facilities outside city limits.

But these moves and more – particularly that last one – really didn’t really do the trick. Beijing’s air pollution problem only got worse in the years that followed.

Now China is turning the tables on its damaging smog story, with air pollution data published over the past 18 months revealing a slow and steady improvement. It’s still pretty bad, mind you.

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This is the ski slope… seriously

Clean air, polluted water?

And so the 2022 Olympics represents an opportunity for China to demonstrate its pollution progress — though it might be more complicated than you’d expect, not only because Winter is smoggier than Summer.

It’s not all about the air. The international press is already having a field day with news that the slopes don’t have snow — which is kind of important when the main events are skiing, snowboarding and sports like that.

Instead China will manufacture snow – a massively water-intensive process – and probably store it in temperature-controlled warehouses. As observed by the media, that phoney snow will be made in an “increasingly arid” area suffering from “severe water stress”. And, because of the lack of rain, water will be taken from reservoirs reserved for drinking supplies.

A report by the Olympic Commission also says Beijing underestimates just how much water will be needed. The New Republic, for one, says the city is “setting itself up for a manmade disaster”.

But in terms of water, the Olympics is the least of China’s problems. As we reported last year, contamination of the country’s historic Yellow River could hit the water supply of more than fifty major cities.

By the time the athletes arrive in Beijing the government may be scrambling to deal with a completely different environmental challenge.

Read our series on China’s Energy Challenge