China's boom and doom

China now produces tons of cheap clothes, electronics and raw materials -- and dizzying amounts of pollution beginning to taint the globe.

Published February 12, 2007 12:29PM (EST)

The cloud of dirt was hard to make out from the ground, but from six miles up, the scientists could see the gigantic mass of ozone, dust and soot with the naked eye. In a specially outfitted aircraft taking off from Munich airport, they surveyed the brownish haze stretching from Germany all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.

These kinds of clouds float above Europe for most of the year, and they've traveled far to get there. By analyzing the makeup of particles in this cloud, European scientists were able to identify its origin. "There was a whole bunch from China in there," says Andreas Stohl, 38, of the Norwegian Institute for Air Research.

Some 7,500 miles to the west, Steven Cliff is slowly winding his way up Mount Tamalpais near San Francisco in his RV. The 36-year-old researcher has installed a complex instrument to measure the air that crosses the Pacific from Asia and reaches the West Coast.

Days like this are ideal for taking these measurements. San Francisco is shrouded in cool fog, but on top of the mountain there's warm sunshine. Indeed, these are ideal conditions for surveying air currents untainted by local influences. But Cliff is alarmed by his instrument's readings -- soot particles have colored the device's filter "blacker than we've ever seen it," he says.

Back in a lab at the University of California at Davis, Cliff and his colleagues analyze the origins of the air pollution with the help of x-rays. According to their chemical signature, most have come from coal-fired Chinese power plants, Chinese smelters and chemical factories, and from the tailpipes of countless Chinese diesel-powered cars and trucks.

On the other side of the Pacific, in Yokohama, Japan, climate change researcher Hajime Akimoto places three photos of the Earth next to each other. They show in red where concentrations of nitrogen dioxide are especially high. The picture from 1996 shows the area between Beijing and Shanghai as a loose group of reddish spots, but one from 2005 completely covers that part of China in bright red.

Winds are blowing ever-greater amounts of pollution from China into Japan, leading many Japanese to complain about irritated eyes and throats. Last year, for the first time, two cities issued official warnings about the health dangers caused by Japan's neighbor across the sea.

China has become a global environmental problem. Initially, it was only the economists who were shocked by how the country was changing the world with its cheap clothes, televisions and washing machines. But now climate researchers are concerned about another Chinese export -- the pollution it is spreading across the planet. The massive nation is already the world's second-biggest producer of greenhouse gases after the United States.

And particularly in North America and Europe, awe over China's booming economy and its ability to produce cheap goods for the entire world is now often giving way to a critical question: Can the planet handle China's growing damage to the environment?

China's economy is booming -- with an annual growth rate of more than 10 percent. But the more the country's population of 1.3 billion strives to raise itself out of poverty with a mostly antiquated industrial base -- and the cheaper the Chinese goods the world's consumers buy -- the higher the price the world will pay for China's economic miracle.

The Chinese are no longer simply destroying their own environment. Just as trade is global these days, so too is the threat against nature.

The connection isn't always apparent at first glance. For example, what does the spreading desert of Inner Mongolia -- a massive autonomous region in northern China -- have to do with the comfy cashmere sweaters that shoppers are snapping up for next to nothing in cities from Berlin to Boston? For years, Chinese herders in the region let millions of goats graze until the grass was gone, roots and all. Then the soil simply blew away and the desert began to expand at an alarming rate. Since the early 1980s, China's grasslands have shrunk each year by some 15,000 square kilometers -- an area the size of Connecticut.

And now in the midst of a deadly drought, the sand dunes move ever closer to the small village Chaogetu Hure. Inch by inch, seemingly unstoppable, the dunes claim everything in their path, as if they want to bury the government's costly efforts to plant trees, build fences, corral goats and resettle local inhabitants.

Abbot Lao Didarjie is being forced to watch the walls of the house opposite his Zhao Huasi temple slowly disappear under the sand. Out of fear for the house of worship, he's raised an alarm with six different authorities. "The temple was built by the sixth Dalai Lama in the 17th century," says the religious leader. "It should be saved for the coming generations."

Only a few miles away, on the edge of Luanjingtan, the farmer Xu Changqin inspects a few meager green stalks of wheat. The local peasants worked hard to plant their fields, but last May a sandstorm covered them over. "The grassland is getting smaller. The fertile grounds are disappearing," says Xu, explaining how growing numbers of people are moving away to seek more hospitable places to live.

The fine sand from the farmer's homeland blows all the way to California and Europe. It's mixed in with ash and other dangerous particles from industries in China's Inner Mongolia region, which is home to countless factories, chemical works and power plants.

Along the Huang (Yellow) River in the city of Shizuishan, in the Ningxia region adjacent to Inner Mongolia, the extent of the pollution becomes obvious. Swaths of gray-black clouds blot out the sun to make the perfect setting for a Hollywood film about the end of the world. Two power plants belch ash into an artificial lake separated from the nearby river only by a thin dam. The wind blows the ash upward to start it on its journey around the globe.

But it's not just sand, smog and ash that China is spewing into the atmosphere. The country's factories and power plants already emit more sulfur dioxide (SO2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) than Europe, even though the booming Chinese economy manages only a fraction of the per capita gross domestic product that the old industrialized nations do. Between 2000 and 2005, China's SO2 emissions grew to 26 million tons. In just a few years the country will surpass the United States to become the world's biggest carbon dioxide producer. China already accounts for more than 15 percent of total global CO2 emissions.

Independent U.S. energy expert James Brock can see the smog-filled sky from his office in Beijing. "Currently each Chinese person uses just one-fifth of the energy that an American does," he says. But when China reaches a Western standard of living, each person in the country will use three times what he or she does now. Even done efficiently, that will amount to five tons of coal each year. Presently, only very few Chinese can afford that standard of living. But what effect on the environment will there be if the Communist Party makes good on its promise to spread as much "modest prosperity" to as many citizens as possible by 2020? Can nature withstand the strain when the number of families with washing machines, driers, air conditioners and cars rises from 100 million to a half billion?

Chinese factories are already producing three times as many air conditioning units as they did five years ago. And although few people drive cars in China compared to industrialized countries, in Beijing alone the number of vehicles is growing by a thousand each day. In order to feed its appetite for energy, China is building coal-fired power plants as fast as it can. Every seven to 10 days a new plant begins spewing smoke into the sky. The amount by which China increased its power production last year alone is greater than Britain's entire capacity.

Coal heavily pollutes the air, but China's leaders see little alternative to a dirty resource that is available in ample quantities around the country. Some 69 percent of all Chinese power plants are run on coal. China used 2.1 billion tons of it in 2004 -- more than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. Even if the Chinese economy continues to grow only 7 percent annually, its coal usage would double to 4 million tons within 10 years.

Slowly, politicians and scientists are recognizing the path of destruction caused by China's industrial revolution. Yet China has a long tradition of abusing nature. Revolutionary leader Mao Zedong spoke of "dominating nature" and during the Great Leap Forward (1958-59) ordered the construction of numerous factories. In an attempt to overtake Britain as an industrial power, the Chinese were instructed to build mini blast furnaces across the entire land. The absurd project failed, but the environmental destruction is still visible. To heat the steel furnaces, China chopped down an estimated 10 percent of its forests.

The country opened itself to the world in the late 1970s, and its bizarre mixture of communism and capitalism has since produced growth rates that Western politicians can only dream of. But China was simultaneously turned into one massive, poison-producing factory.

The country is home to 16 of the world's 20 dirtiest cities. The inhabitants of every third metropolis are forced to breathe polluted air, causing the death of an estimated 400,000 Chinese each year. Half of China's 696 cities and counties suffer from acid rain. Two-thirds of its major rivers and lakes are cesspools, and more than 340 million people do not have access to clean drinking water. The Yangtze River, once China's proud artery of life, is biologically dead for long stretches. Many other rivers flow with blackened water, and along their banks are the notorious "cancer villages," where many people die early.

It's now begun to dawn on Beijing's politicians what China's economy is doing to China's ecology. Experts like Pan Yue, the deputy minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), are already fearful that environmental pollution will destroy the impressive economic growth of recent years. SO2 emissions cause $65 billion worth of damage each year, and the World Bank estimates environmental pollution already shaves 8 to 12 percent off China's gross national product.

"China has gone through an industrialization in the past 20 years that many developing countries needed 100 years to complete. That's why the country now has to deal with environmental problems that would also take 100 years to solve in many Western nations," Pan says.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has also distanced himself from the country's rape of the environment by promoting "sustainable growth," which includes an ambitious nuclear program. At least 20 nuclear power plants are to be built by 2020 -- but the communist leadership doesn't say where the radioactive waste will end up. Beijing also wants at least 10 percent of the country's energy needs to be covered by renewable sources such as solar, wind and hydro. Photovoltaic facilities have already been erected in thousands of villages, and giant wind parks dot China's eastern coast.

Beijing also actively participates in the international emissions trade and provides foreign environmental polluters with opportunities to buy their way out of their obligations by financing somewhat clean chemical plants. The Chinese government plans to spend around $125 billion on sewage treatment facilities and new water pipes over the next five years.

But such impressive-sounding announcements, measured against the scope and speed of China's environmental destruction, fall far short of what's needed. And despite any good intentions, the Communist Party members make no secret that their most important goals remain those that will ensure their continuing power: raising the living standard of China's citizens and eliminating the massive gap between rich and poor, as well as East and West.

China's leaders are certainly pushing for tougher laws to allow for stricter punishments for criminal officials and unscrupulous factory managers. But the misery is partially caused by the country's authoritarian system, which allows for neither an independent judiciary nor democratic supervision. SEPA's 167,000 employees aren't empowered enough to clamp down on polluters in every single province, especially if there's an influential employer there. And often local officials simply consider impressive growth rates more important for their career than a clean environment.

Of 661 Chinese cities, 278 did not have a sewage treatment plant at the end of 2005. But wealthy polluters can often pay any fines with petty cash. Many recently built power plants shouldn't even exist. Roughly half of them are illegal -- many simply on technical grounds, but others because of corrupt or negligent officials who ignore environmental rules. Instead of falling as they should, emissions in 17 provinces have risen.

These grim facts aren't kept secret, as some government officials apparently still believe that they have the situation under control. SEPA official Li Xinmin claims it remains unproven that pollution from Chinese power plants reaches other countries. "That's a false, irresponsible argument," Li says.

Climate expert Liu Deshun, from Beijing's Tsinghua University, seemingly has a reassuring statistic or sensible Communist Party decree for almost any pressing environmental problem. But he avoids the key question: How much is China contributing to global warming, and what is the government doing to try to stop it?

Liu wears a small green cap and an oversize pair of sunglasses. "We are a developing country," he says. "We aren't yet in the position to take on international obligations." Beijing has signed the Kyoto Protocol -- which aims to reduce CO2 emissions worldwide by 2012 -- but as a developing nation, China is not obligated to make cuts. Still, the professor claims Beijing's leaders have made an important contribution to efforts to protect the environment: The country's strict population control policies have ensured that 300 million fewer people live on the planet and use its limited resources.

When a chemical plant exploded in the northeastern Jilin province in November 2005, the industrial city Harbin had to cut water supplies for four days to prevent its 9 million inhabitants from being poisoned. But that didn't keep the catastrophe from spreading, as a thick benzene film traveled from the Songhua River into the Amur River, where it slowly dissipated in Russia's Far East.

Alexei Makinov, saw the disaster in the making. "It wasn't just a problem since the accident," says the 54-year-old Russian geologist and head of the hydrology lab of the Russian Academy of Sciences in the Far East in Khabarovsk. "The river has been stinking since 1997." The scientist's desk is covered with tables and statistics, and his glass-fronted cabinet is crammed full of papers. All of it is environmental data on the Amur.

But it's easy to see with the naked eye just how much damage the river has suffered. The Sungari -- as the Songhua River is known in Russia -- carries tons of poisonous sludge hundreds of miles downstream to the Amur. When fishers cut a hole in the river ice during the winter, a horrible odor is released. Makinov thinks the smell is from dying plant life and tells of residents complaining of infections, rashes and diarrhea.

The ailing Amur River has become the most important patient of 65-year-old doctor Vladena Rybakova as the end of her career nears. "The river began to stink of phenol," she says. "And at first we thought it was a natural phenomenon." But soon Rybakova and her colleagues found the actual cause over the Chinese border. Whereas 65 million people live on the Chinese side of the Amur, there are only 4 million on the Russian side. Since the Chinese authorities offered the Russian scientists no information on what their factories were producing and what poisons they might be releasing into the waters, the Russians began investigating on their own in the early 1990s. After Rybakova fed lab rats fish from the river and then dissected them, she discovered that "their livers decomposed before you could start cutting."

The road to Sikachi-Alyan leads past barracks and massive radar equipment. It is home to the ethnic Nanai minority, which has always lived from fishing. During Soviet times there was a fishing collective here, but now the village of wooden houses has fallen into bitter poverty. These days no one will buy what the locals catch.

"For the past 12 years, the fish have smelled like chemicals," says village leader Nina Druzhinina, a thin woman with a towering hairdo. "At first we thought it was Russian plants letting untreated water into the river. But now we know most of the filth comes from China."

In order to secure their future, the Chinese also intend to dominate the Mekong River, which is known as the Lancang in China. In Yunnan province there are two major dams holding back the waters of Southeast Asia's longest river without regard for China's neighbors. Six further dams are planned. At the construction site of the Xiaowan Dam, an army of workers is transforming the once green gorges into a barren Martian landscape. Xiaowan will be one of the world's biggest hydroelectric plants -- almost as huge as the controversial Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.

Farther southward, the Mekong flows through fertile rice paddies and cornfields. Here and there, bamboo groves crowd the banks. But the lives of millions people who depend on the river's natural rhythms have been disrupted. The Chinese now have a dam in place and they flood the Mekong as they please -- when, for example, the water is too low and the Chinese need a big ship to enter the Thai river harbor of Chiang Saen.

In Cambodia, where river fish are one of the most important sources of food, the size of the catch is shrinking -- especially in the important Tonle Sap lake and river system. But even down south in the Mekong Delta the river has become unpredictable, according to residents. Sometimes floods wash away houses, and at other times there's not enough water for the rice paddies.

Suthep Teowtrakul, district head of the small Thai town Chiang Khong, observes the river every day. He wears a yellow polo shirt sporting the words "I Love the King" and has four Buddha figures in his office. But neither his monarch nor the bodhisattva can help him counter the Chinese effects on the Mekong. "My motto is: Leave the river alone," he says, while admitting that's unlikely to happen, "because the Chinese think the Mekong belongs to them." Just like the fields they destroy or the air they pollute.

At a recent United Nations conference on climate change in Nairobi, the Chinese demanded that developing nations not be forced to make cuts in greenhouse gases. Only after pushing through this condition -- from which China has the most to gain -- did the Chinese delegates vote to work toward a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol.

China is a big country, a future superpower. Its leaders, accountable only to themselves, don't care for economic or environmental advice. They set their own path.

But each year, each month, almost every week, China experiences some sort of major environmental catastrophe. The mess spreads across the land, in its waterways and the air. And far too often, the rest of the world gets sprinkled with some of it too.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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