Fighting for air: frontline of war on global warming
Progress comes at a high price for China and India, but there are
grounds for hope
Jonathan Watts in Linfen, Randeep Ramesh in New Delhi
Monday March 26, 2007
Residents of Linfen, China, wear masks to protect themselves from the
pollution. Photograph: Wu Hong/EPA
In the most polluted city on earth, the smog is so thick that it
seems to consume its source. Iron foundries, smelting plants and
cement factories loom out of the haze then disappear once more as you
drive along Linfen's roads. The outlines of smoke stacks blur in the
filthy mist. No sooner are the plumes of carbon and sulphur belched
out than the chimneys are swallowed up again.
"We only see the sun for a few days each year," said Zhou Huocun, a
doctor in the outlying village of Liucunzhen. "The colour of our
village is black. It is so dirty that nobody airs their quilts
outside any more so we are getting more parasites. I have seen a
steady increase in respiratory diseases as the air quality gets worse
Outside Dr Zhou's hospital, shoes leave marks in the black dust. But
it is a different type of carbon footprint that is drawing
international attention to this part of the world.
Linfen is the frontline of the battle against global warming. For the
past five years, the city of 3.5 million people has been the most
polluted place on the planet, bottom of the World Bank's air quality
rankings, and a symbol of the worst side-effects of China's breakneck
Enveloped by a spectral haze, the city lies at the heart of a 12-mile
industrial belt, fed by the 50m tonnes of coal mined each year in the
nearby hills of Shanxi province. The New York-based Blacksmith
Institute puts it alongside Chernobyl on a list of the planet's 10
most contaminated places.
What Linfen symbolises is the cost of development in China and the
other most populous country: India. Both economies are growing
explosively, leading to a rapid expansion of their middle classes.
This in turn has seen a growing appetite for power - one sated by the
building of dirty, inefficient coal-fired plants that are slowly
cooking the world's atmosphere.
The effects have been dramatic. By 2009 China is predicted to
overtake the United States as the world's biggest emitter of
greenhouse gases. India has recently become the fourth biggest
polluter, but its steeply rising emissions will see it in third place
within a few years.
China's three decades of industrial blitzkrieg has extracted a heavy
price. Seventy percent of its rivers are contaminated. In the
southern Himalayas, ancient glaciers are melting. Further north,
encroaching deserts threaten the livelihoods of 400 million people.
India, which is only half as rich as China, has also suffered. The
frequency of catastrophic weather events such as flash flooding, say
Indian meteorologists, is increasing. Clouds of brown soot cover the
skies above the Indian Ocean for months each year. Agricultural
scientists in the subcontinent note rising temperatures caused wheat
yields to drop by a 10th last year.
The new consumption culture has brought western-style affluence that
largely rural India can barely cope with. Car sales are growing at
20% a year, but there are not enough roads for anyone to drive on.
India - unlike China, Europe and America - does not set any fuel
The result is that in the backstreets of a city such as Kanpur on the
banks of the Ganges sit lines of cars, their engines idling in the
sun. Kanpur, with 3 million people, is the world's seventh most
polluted place, according to the World Bank study. A thick brown haze
of exhaust fumes is visible at street level.
Last year the Guardian found hundreds of people queuing outside the
government hospital, their mouths covered with dirty rags. "About 40%
of the patients coming with respiratory diseases are affected by the
atmospheric pollution," said Dr R P Singh, who describes the air as a
The environmental problems in India and China, which between them
have 2.4 billion people, have become an excuse for inaction
elsewhere. Many Britons argue that whatever positive steps they take
will be insignificant compared with the negative impact of economic
growth in Asia. As Tony Blair puts it: "Close down all of Britain's
emissions and in less than two years just the growth in China's
emissions would wipe out the difference."
British officials on a visit to Delhi this year told the Guardian
that they were sceptical that India and China would sacrifice growth
for green measures. "They are talking about climate change but doing
very little in reality," said a source.
But for those seeking good news, it can be found even in China.
Linfen is trying to clean up. By the end of this year, the city aims
to close 160 of 196 iron foundries, and 57 of 153 coking plants. By
replacing small, dirty and dangerous plants with large, cleaner and
more carefully regulated facilities, the local government in Linfen
plans to drastically reduce emissions. Central heating will be
provided by gas instead of coal.
The changes are being driven by business (nobody wants to invest in
such a polluted place), bureaucratic self-interest (local officials
find it difficult to be promoted) and shifting political priorities.
"We have more power than before," said Yang Zhaofen, director of
Linfen's environmental bureau. "The mayor says we can sacrifice
economic growth in order to improve air quality. That used to be
There are already small signs of change. Last year, Linfen's
residents breathed 163 days of unhealthy air, 15 days fewer than in
2005. Many factories have already been closed - not a wisp of smoke
emerges from their chimneys. Thanks partly to such measures, Linfen
lost its bottom spot in China's latest pollution rankings to the far-
flung western city of Urumqi.
Both Beijing and New Delhi argue that they must use more energy to
lift their populations from poverty, and that emissions per person
are a fraction of those in rich states. Manmohan Singh, the Indian
prime minister, told a conference this month: "The principal
polluters are the United States and countries of western Europe. Per
capita emissions are far ahead [of India and China]. You cannot
preserve energy by perpetuating poverty in the poor nations."
The figures bear out his words. India emits 1.1 tonnes of carbon
dioxide per person. China puts out 3.5 tonnes. Both are less than the
global average of 4.2 tonnes. The comparable figures for the UK and
America are 9.6 and 20.2 tonnes respectively.
Last year the Indian president, Abdul Kalam, a former scientist,
called for 25% of power generation to come from renewable sources by
2030. The figure is now just 6%.
The country, which started its renewables ministry a decade ago, is
building the world's biggest wind farm site, with 500 turbines
outside Mumbai. The farm will have a capacity of 1,000MW.
"We are helping to make India one of only four countries in the world
that can manufacture and export such technologies," said Tulsi Tanti,
founder and managing director of Suzlon, which is building the wind
farm. "Global warming created a great awareness for us. We have the
support of the government and with the economy growing by 8-10% there
will be a power deficit which we can fill with clean wind power."
In China there's also a growing appreciation of the unsustainable
nature of red-hot economic growth, which has led to new green
policies. In an address to the National People's Congress this month,
the Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, promised that "backward"
factories would be shut down and energy efficiency improved to "bring
pollution under control and protect the environment".
Previous leaders have failed to keep similar pledges. Mr Wen
acknowledged that China had fallen short of its environmental targets
last year. According to the latest five-year plan, China should use
20% less energy per unit of economic output by 2010. Last year,
however, it managed to improve energy efficiency by only 1%.
Yang Ailun, climate campaigner for Greenpeace in China, said the
country was slowly waking up to environmental problems, but not
necessarily in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. "They are worried
about the immediate causes of pollution - like river contamination -
rather than global warming. Climate change seems far away," she said.
"If the government is really serious about environmental protection,
then we need to change our economic structure and reduce our
dependency on coal."
The timing is critical. The Kyoto protocol, which required developed
countries to reduce their emissions by 5% from 1990 levels, expires
in 2012. China and India were not given targets under the Kyoto
protocol while America refused to ratify it. The upshot is that none
of these three giants have any binding commitment to cut emissions.
But for an effective replacement for the protocol, these three will
have to take part in negotiations by 2010. Much depends on the US,
which is responsible for about a quarter of all emissions. Without
willing American engagement, the chances of a new agreement are
Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change, which last month reported that global warming was
"unequivocal" and caused by human activity, said the only reasonable
solution was to cut emissions of greenhouse gases gradually, while
attempting to find new, low-carbon, energy sources, such as wind,
solar, water and nuclear power.
"But we cannot ask developing countries like India and China to bear
all of this burden. Both have a point when they say that all the
carbon dioxide was emitted in the process of the west becoming
industrialised especially by the United States," Dr Pachauri said.
"India and China will argue that this is not a problem created by
"Instead we will find that people in the west will have to change
their behaviour and conserve energy, use less power, perhaps wear
warmer clothes in cold winters rather than turning up the central
heating. It also means countries like India will need help building
railways so that their public transport systems can cope with the
When negotiations start this December for a deal to replace the Kyoto
protocol, China and India will resist binding targets to reduce
emissions. New Delhi will probably seek technology to reduce carbon
emissions from its power plants. At most, Beijing might agree to
goals on energy efficiency and greater use of alternatives to coal
Shame could prove the great motivator. "The whole world will soon say
to China, 'You are the number one emitter. You have got to do
something,'" said Jeffrey Sachs, head of the Earth Institute at
Columbia University. Speaking at a recent lecture in Beijing,
Professor Sachs said China needed to move quickly towards clean coal
and carbon capture technology. "The safe use of fossil fuels is the
single most important source of hope in China and India."