China's Poison for the Planet
SPIEGEL ONLINE - February 1, 2007, 07:27 PM
THE DOWNSIDE OF THE BOOM
China's Poison for the Planet
By Andreas Lorenz and Wieland Wagner
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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?
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 ten 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
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 together. Even if the
Chinese economy only continues to grow seven percent annually, its
coal usage would double to 4 million tons within ten years.
Slowly, politicians and scientists are recognizing the path of
destruction caused by China's industrial revolution. Yet, communist
China has a long tradition of abusing nature. Revolutionary leader Mao
Zedong spoke of "dominating nature" and during the Great
Leap Forward (1958-1959) he 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 ten percent of its forests.
A poison-producing factory
The country opened itself to the world in the late 1970s, 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 deaths 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 there 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
damages worth ¤50 billion each year and the World Bank estimates
environmental pollution already shaves eight to 12 percent off of
China's gross national product (GNP).
"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,"
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has also distanced himself from the
country's raping of the environment to promote "sustainable
growth," which includes an ambitious nuclear program. At least 20
new 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 ten 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 by 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.
Putting growth before the environment
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 neither allows for 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 careers 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
incurred with petty cash. Many recently built power plants shouldn't
actually even exist. Roughly half of them are illegal -- many simply
on formal grounds, but others due to 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 in spite of everything that they have the
dramatic 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,"
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 oversized 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
A disaster in the making
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 cabinet with its glass door 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 kilometers 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 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."
Damned by dams
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.
A few hundred kilometers further 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 affects 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.
Setting its own course to the detriment of others
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 towards 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