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.
Driving China's desire to create coal bases are its soaring energy demand, abundant coal resources, lack of inexpensive alternatives and the need to move coal power production out of its cities—which are already drowning in smog from dirty coal plants. Meanwhile, its energy-hungry economy is booming to meet insatiable demands of consumers in America and Europe for cheaply manufactured products.
By any measure, China's coal base plan is the single largest fossil fuel development project in the world. So while more coal bases could mean cleaner air for many urban Chinese, scientists fear a nightmare scenario for global climate change.
By 2011, humans had added 531 billion tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading global body for assessing climate science. That figure means countries have already blown through more than half of the world's "carbon budget"—or the maximum amount of carbon humans can spew into the air to keep warming below 2-degrees Celsius, the threshold that would trigger runaway warming.
Experts estimate that if China's planned coal bases are built, the country's emissions would likely hit 10 billion tons a year—putting it on track to consume the world's remaining 349 billion tons by 2050.
"This is a major change in China," said Robert Jackson, director of Duke University's Center on Global Change, of the coal bases. "If they proceed, both water use and greenhouse gases would skyrocket."
China's Dirty Air: A First-Hand Look
Speeding 200 miles per hour on a bullet train over the crest of a hill toward Beijing, China's air pollution dilemma becomes clear—as trees, farm buildings and power poles fade into a grey haze.
It's as if a heavy fog has filled the air. A young Chinese student riding the train on that August afternoon explains that it's air pollution.
Particle-laden smog has been enveloping wide areas of China more often and reaching ever-higher levels due to growing use of energy as hundreds of millions of its citizens moved out of poverty. The smog kills 1.2 million Chinese prematurely each year, according to a World Bank estimate in 2013.
Indeed, a two-week trip in China—traveling in a big circle from Beijing south toward Shanghai, west to Xi’an and then north through Linfen and Shanxi Province, the heart of China's coal country—becomes a smog travelogue. Even in August, a time of year that's normally clean compared to winter and early spring when pollution peaks, the air is thick with haze, although it is nothing like the pollution sieges of the past two winters. Then, young and old alike had to stay indoors. Working adults wore masks when they commuted to work. Emergency rooms were flooded with respiratory patients.
On the surface, the source is readily identifiable.
"Too much coal," exclaimed Natural Resources Defense Council scientist Fuqiang Yang, waving his hand across his face. Fuqiang, senior adviser on energy, environment and climate change in NRDC's Beijing Office, said China needs to move to cleaner forms of energy and greater energy efficiency to clean up its air and address climate change, rather than depending upon coal.
But that's easier said than done.