The Downside of the Boom China's Poison for the Planet

Can the environment withstand China's growing economic might? As one of the planet's worst polluters, Beijing's ecological sins are creating problems on a global scale. Many countries are now feeling the consequences.

By and

The cloud of dirt was hard to make out from the ground, but at an altitude of 10,000 meters (32,808 feet), 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 a brownish mixture stretching from Germany all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.

Smoke from factories in China's Shanxi province: Slowly, politicians and scientists are recognizing the path of destruction caused by China's industrial revolution.

Smoke from factories in China's Shanxi province: Slowly, politicians and scientists are recognizing the path of destruction caused by China's industrial revolution.

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 the cloud, European scientists were able to identify its origin. "There was a whole bunch from China in there," says Andreas Stohl, a 38-year-old from the Norwegian Institute for Air Research.

Some 12,000 kilometers (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 from Asia that reaches the West Coast of the United States over the Pacific Ocean.

Days like this are ideal for taking these measurements. San Francisco is shrouded in cool fog, but up on the 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, as well as from the tailpipes of countless Chinese diesel-powered cars and trucks.

An export world champion -- in pollution

On the other side of the Pacific, in Yokohama, Japanese 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, two cities made official warnings about health dangers caused by Japan's big red neighbor across the sea for the first time.

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 over ten 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 more cheap Chinese goods the world's consumers buy, the bigger the price will be that the world pays for China's economic miracle.

A threat at home, a threat abroad

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 the US state of Connecticut.

Map: The Downside of the Boom

Map: The Downside of the Boom

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, they claim everything in their path, as if the dunes purposely want to bury the government's expensive 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 alarm with six different authorities. "The temple was built by the 6th Dalai Lama in the 17th century," says the religious leader. "It should be saved for the coming generations."

Only a few kilometers away, on the edge of Luanjingtan, 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 industry 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 rather obvious. Swaths of gray-black cloud 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.

Sand, smog and ash-filled skies

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.

Graphic: China's Polluted Air

Graphic: China's Polluted Air

Independent US 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 Western standards of living, each person in the country will use three times what they do 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 propaganda 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?

  • Part 1: China's Poison for the Planet
  • Part 2

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