Part 2 of 2 of a special report from the co-author of a forthcoming book, The People's Republic of Chemicals. Read Part 1.
China's plans to build remote industrial coal complexes to power its economy are putting the country on a trajectory to wipe out global gains in tackling climate change, scientists fear. But other nations share responsibility for China's fossil fuel binge and the toxic air people breathe as a result—especially the United States.
China's pollution scourge has its roots in trade agreements set in motion by President Bill Clinton in the early 1990s that allowed U.S. companies to take advantage of cheap labor and lax environmental standards in the world's most populous nation—where coal energy reigns supreme. Many times the United States helped China finance dirty sources of energy.
As much as one-third of China's carbon load on the atmosphere can be traced to exports of cheap clothes, electronics, machinery and other goods consumed by Americans and Europeans, experts say. And while free trade to the West has made China's economy boom, Chinese people have paid dearly due to the resulting smog from factories and coal-fired power plants.
"We made a big mistake" by not including environmental safeguards in trade policies with China, said Mickey Kantor, Clinton's chief trade negotiator and later Secretary of Commerce. Now a practicing attorney in Los Angeles with expertise in international relations, Kantor has been shuttling back and forth between the United States and China in one capacity or another for 20 years. He calls China's air "a disaster" and says that each time he visits "it's worse."
China is erecting huge industrial complexes in remote areas to convert coal to synthetic fuel that could make the air in its megacities cleaner. But the complexes use so much energy that the carbon footprint of the fuel is almost double that of conventional coal and oil, spelling disaster for earth's climate, a growing chorus of scientists is warning.
Efforts by China to develop so-called "coal bases" in its far-flung regions have received scant attention beyond the trade press, but scientists watching the effort say it could cause climate damage that eclipses worldwide climate protection efforts.
The facilities, which resemble oil refineries, use coal to make liquid fuels, chemicals, power and "syngas," which is like natural gas but extracted from coal. The fuels and electricity are then transported to China's big cities to be burned in power plants, factories and cars.
Currently 16 coal base sites are being built and many are operational. One being constructed in Inner Mongolia will eventually occupy nearly 400 square miles—almost the size of the sprawling city of Los Angeles.