BEIJING - A pale orange sun hangs low over the evening rush hour, a brake-light procession of Mercedes, matchbox-size taxis and accordion-style buses that cuts through a canyon of skyscraper construction cranes.
On this spring evening, as on most days, this city of 15 million souls is wrapped in a churning brown gauze of foul fumes and gritty dirt.
“It’s a pretty strong cocktail of dust particulates, industrial and automotive pollution,” observed Jeremy Goldkorn, a 12-year Beijing resident and Internet entrepreneur. “It’s something a lot of expatriates, especially people from Northern California, find very difficult. You blow your nose and what comes out is black.”
For China, the 21st century holds boundless possibilities. The awakening economic giant could surpass anything that has come before it. But China is also an environmental time bomb.
Its polluted air is not only choking its citizens but also spreading 6,000 miles across the Pacific, giving Californians - even those with no other ties to China - a personal stake in that country’s exploding environmental crisis.
Microscopic soot particles belched from coal-fired plants across the ocean are settling in Sierra Nevada snowpacks. Low levels of mercury from those plants are showing up in soil and water. And dust from expanding deserts in China and elsewhere in Asia can be found in the air high above the state.
Pollution migration is not new - Europeans, for example, get it from the United States. And the current levels of pollutants from Asia do not pose an urgent health or environmental threat. But experts worry about the potential increase of emissions from China as the world’s fastest-growing economy continues to expand. At the very least, pollution from China will add to the cost and difficulty of cleaning up California’s skies.
For decades, the United States has been the world’s largest polluter, taken to task by other countries for its contribution to global warming. This year, however, China’s annual emissions are on pace to overtake those of the United States. Worse, China’s pollution is projected to be double that of all other industrialized nations combined in 25 years, according to the International Energy Agency.
“The concern about China is that it is going through such a rapid industrialization,” said V. Ramanathan, a scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. “It is setting up more coal-fired power plants. The number of cars are increasing.”
Twenty of the world’s 30 most polluted cities are in China, and every year more than 300,000 deaths there are attributed to pollution, according to the World Bank.
Much of that pollution comes from the coal-fired plants that produce about 70 percent of China’s energy needs, compared with 50 percent for the United States and 16 percent for California.
But the problem in China is not just the amount of coal burned. Many of its plants and factories have inadequate pollution-control equipment, if any, and that is unlikely to change in coming years. Rising levels of sulfur dioxide from burning coal is causing acid rain.
Foul air is just one ingredient in the toxic stew that is China’s environment. Seventy percent of the country’s lakes and rivers are so polluted they would make humans sick. Every year, about 45 billion tons of industrial waste and raw sewage are dumped in rivers and lakes.
In late 2005, a chemical plant spill contaminated the Songhua River in northern China, forcing the city of Harbin to shut down its drinking water system. Earlier this month, more than a million residents of eastern China were left without drinking water when a fast-spreading, putrid-smelling green algae covered badly polluted Lake Tai.
The northern half of China is “drying out” as water tables fall, lakes vanish and rivers disappear, observed environmental analyst Lester Brown, founder of Washington-based Earth Policy Institute. Much of the water in the southern half of China, meanwhile, is growing ever more polluted.
The land also suffers.
The government recently reported that 10 percent of farmland has been destroyed by pollution and that heavy metals contaminate 12 million tons of grain a year. Toxic food scares have become common in China, and increasingly are a worry in the United States as food imports from China grow.
Rampant deforestation is expanding the country’s deserts and contributing to disruptive spring sandstorms so big they have shown up on NASA satellite photos as giant blobs of brown passing over Asia and California. About 27 percent of China’s land mass is now desert, or becoming desert.
The Gobi Desert in northern China expanded more than 20,000 square miles, about half the size of Pennsylvania, in just six years in the 1990s, Brown noted.
China also has become the electronic-waste garbage dump for the world. A recent report by the Beijing-based Science and Technology Daily, the official newspaper of the Ministry of Science and Technology, said most of the home electronics gadgets discarded by the developed world end up in China.
“The question of the century is: Can China industrialize in a way that does not crush the planet?” said Erik Straser, general partner in MDV-Mohr Davidow Ventures of Menlo Park, Calif., and an expert in energy company investments who has consulted with Chinese officials.
China’s leaders finally have begun to wake up to the toll from the country’s environmental problems. The State Environmental Protection Administration and the National Bureau of Statistics estimated that environmental degradation, pollution-related health problems and lost work days in 2004 came with a $64 billion price tag, or 3.05 percent of the country’s $2 trillion gross domestic product that year. Some experts believe the cost is much higher.
Earlier this month, with pressure building to put a green face on Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, China announced a strategy to grapple with global warming and pollution, though much of it reiterated earlier goals. The plan included tough measures to cut pollution and promote renewable energy. But the government rejected mandatory emissions caps as unfair to China and other developing countries struggling to combat poverty.
“The environment is very, very much an issue,” said Lai Ming, general director of science and technology with the Ministry of Construction. “If we don’t deal with it now, it will definitely hurt the economy in the future.”
But the challenges are daunting. The nation of 1.3 billion people, most of whom live in poverty, must continue to stoke its economic engine while working to avoid environmental disaster.
“Over the last 20 years, people just focused on GDP, GDP,” said Beijing-based Timothy Hui, chief China representative of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S. environmental advocacy group. “Now, China is looking at its economic growth and environment. But China has no experience at achieving this balance.”
Now, though, mounting evidence suggests China’s pollution poses problems beyond its own borders.
“It’s apparent there is a lot of pollution coming from Asia and that pollution is increasing,” said Steven Cliff, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California-Davis, whose research has detected matter he believes comes from China.
“A persistent Asian plume is evident in the air over California,” said Cliff, whose air-sampling equipment has been placed at Donner Summit, Lassen Peak and Mount Tamalpais. “It looks vaguely smoky. Generally, you see the type of pollution you might expect from large urban areas in Asia, that might be from a diesel engine or a coal-fired power plant for a cement factory.”
Much of the year, Asian pollution - including soot, ash and dust from farms, factories and coal-fired power plants - hovers high above the Golden State and is, on average, equal to a quarter of the state’s legally allowed concentrations of these particles, said Richard “Tony” VanCuren, a researcher with the California Air Resources Board.
China’s pollution drift is “not an immediate major concern” in terms of public health for the state’s major cities, he said, because California’s coastal areas are protected on most days by the so-called marine layer of air, which acts as a shield against pollution at higher altitudes. But VanCuren said the state is now closely tracking the pollution from Asia because “it will drive up the cost of air pollution control.”
The snow-embedded pollution from China adds to damage already being caused by local pollution, said Ross Edwards, associate research professor at the Desert Research Institute in Reno. “It absorbs sunlight from the atmosphere and melts the snow faster,” he said. “It impacts our ability to store water and contributes to global warming.”
Scripps scientist Ramanathan is embarking on a one-year state-funded study of the trans-Pacific pollution over the Golden State. Using unmanned aircraft and snowpack monitoring devices, he hopes to determine how much pollution is coming from China and what it is doing to local climates.
Although China’s pollution may be a growing worry for other countries, the brunt of the harm falls on the Chinese.
“One hundred ninety-million Chinese are drinking water that is making them sick,” observed Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future.”
Growing health concerns from environmental calamities, such as industrial waste dumped into rivers that provide drinking water to rural communities, have triggered thousands of riots and protests across the countryside.
“It could undermine our social stability,” said Ma Jun, a Beijing-based environmental crusader who heads the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. “The pollution is way beyond our environmental capacity, and it’s increasing,” he added.
Yet China’s growing middle class - estimated to be about 125 million - wants the kind of lifestyle enjoyed by those in the car-loving West. That is evident on Beijing’s wide streets and in auto dealerships that dot the city. China is now the world’s second-largest market for automobiles, and the third-largest car producer.
Every year, about 300,000 new vehicles hit Beijing’s streets, adding to the nearly 3 million already crowding the city.
“Money is no problem,” said car shopper Zhang Qiang, 23, who had grown tired of his 1-year-old Buick and was ready for a new set of wheels.
Chinese such as Zhang want to live like middle-class Americans, said Douglas Ogden, director of the San Francisco-based Energy Foundation’s China Sustainable Energy Program. But he warned that if China reaches current American levels of consumption, it will be disastrous for the planet.
“If each Chinese were to consume the same amount of energy as the average American does, China would be adding 150 percent more carbon dioxides into the atmosphere than does the rest of the world,” he said. “The clock is ticking. We are getting to five minutes before midnight.”