China’s Silver Lining

Why smoggy skies over Beijing represent the world’s greatest environmental opportunity

Photographs by Ariana Lindquist

Chinese cement plants and coal mines are grim enough taken separately. Often they come as a package, the plant built next to the mine to minimize transport costs for the vast quantities of coal the cement-making process consumes. Converting limestone and other materials to the intermediate form of cement called “clinker” requires heating them to more than 2,600°F. Getting kilns this hot requires burning about 400 pounds of coal for each ton of cement produced.

The clinker then cools before it goes through further processing—but the waste heat and exhaust gas are sent straight into the sky, at temperatures of 650F or more, along with the extra carbon dioxide the limestone emits as it becomes cement.

In coal-and-cement towns in China, people and buildings are colored black by the coal dust swirling around them, and coated gray and white by the cement dust that leaks from the kilns and clinker coolers and pours from the exhaust stacks. Driving through the foothills of the Tibetan plateau in western Sichuan province last year, my wife and I could tell from miles away when we were nearing a cement plant, from the grayish pall in the air and the thickening layers of dust on the trees and road. With so much of the country under construction so fast, and with China’s equivalent of America’s interstate highway system being built in the space of a few years, modern China can appear to be made out of concrete. Nearly half of the world’s cement is produced and used in China, and cement factories are a major source of both the country’s surging demand for energy and the environmental damage that is the most shocking side effect of China’s economic miracle.

Thus it was a surprise to drive toward a coal-cement complex in Zibo, a modest city of 4 or 5 million people in Shandong province, 230 miles southeast of Beijing, and see … no white haze. True, miners trudging along the street had blackened faces, and the city was dotted with 100-foot-high mounds of low-grade coal, previously trash but now worth picking over because of soaring world demand. But no white powder mixed with the black, and only wispy plumes of steam wafted from the fat, high smokestacks of the Sunnsy cement company (its name is from the Chinese shansui, or “mountain water”). Indeed, the fattest and somewhat rusty-looking central exhaust stack had been fitted with elaborate ductwork of obviously newer metal, which captured everything coming out of the stack and shunted it to a nearby new building.

Inside the new building was an electricity-generating plant, and what I was seeing was the handiwork of a Chinese engineer in his mid-40s named Tang Jinquan. Tang had never intended to get into the cement business. But when he graduated from the technical university in Harbin, in far northern China, the government was still assigning jobs to graduates—and his assignment was a cement-research institute in his hometown of Tianjin. “I am interested in heat generation, this place is about cement—no match!” he told me (through an interpreter) at the factory in Zibo. He spent nearly the next 20 years of his career in a long effort to make the dirty, wasteful, fast-growing cement industry less environmentally destructive.

The heart of his idea—easy to describe, tricky to implement—is capturing the enormous amount of heat normally wasted in cement making and using it to run turbines that generate electric power. This power can then be fed back into the factory, doing work that would otherwise require burning even more coal. The reduction of dust is a visible indicator of the more fundamental reduction of waste. Over the course of a long day, I heard about the many, many refinements Tang had made to this “co-generation” system since he first started working on it, in the mid-1980s. The punch line is that it now works well enough to cut the energy (mainly from coal) required to make clinker by 60 percent, and the overall power demands of the cement production line by 30 percent.

Tang Jinquan
CEMENT VISIONARY: The engineer Tang Jinquan has harnessed the heat previously wasted in cement making.

Four years ago, Tang left the cement-research institute to form, with two colleagues, a technology start-up company called Dalian East Energy Development, which sells co-generation systems to cement producers like Sunnsy. (It’s a long way from the days of government-assigned jobs.) The energy-recycling system at the factory I saw is expected to cover its multimillion-dollar cost (the exact sum is confidential) within four years, through reduced coal demand and government rebates for energy-saving investments. Sunnsy is a private firm, with annual sales of more than $1 billion and a recent $50 million investment from Morgan Stanley. According to Tang, the 120 similar installations at cement factories throughout China save 1.7 million tons of coal per year.

When I met Tang, he had just returned from a trip to Vietnam, where two of his systems are operating, and was about to head to Uzbekistan, where he has another (others are in India, the Philippines, and Pakistan). His dream now is to apply his co-generation technology to more of China’s most wasteful industries, starting with steel. “I have a long vision, which may not be realized before I die,” he told me when we had lunch. “Of course, that might not be so long!” he added, laughing and waving a cigarette at me—one of 60 he smokes per day.

Tang added that when he goes to class reunions from his university and sees that he is the only one in the cement business, “I feel unacceptable, because the industry is not good.” But he says he knows otherwise, and that he tells recruits to his firm to hold their heads high. “They should be proud of what we are doing! Other industries are consuming the Earth. We are preserving it.”

Here is what I learned by visiting the cement factory, and by seeing and asking about many similar “green” projects in China: China’s environmental situation is disastrous. And it is improving. Everyone knows about the first part. The second part is important too. Outside recognition of where and why China has made progress increases the prospects that it will make further advances. Recognition also clarifies the most important obstacles, political and economic, to such progress. And it is simply fair to the many people within China, including within the Chinese Communist Party, who are trying their best to make a difference—and who are having more success than most Westerners who rely on media accounts would suspect.

It is right, of course, that Western publications emphasize so often and so clearly the damage that China’s economic rise has inflicted on its own environment and the world’s. But the despairing tone of this coverage is itself becoming an issue within China—one more illustration in the long national narrative of not being fully appreciated or respected by the world’s established powers. It might also be having an effect on what the government does.

Surprisingly enough, even official sources within China have gone far to recognize the challenges the country faces and its responsibility to deal with them. Last November, the Chinese government released its 11th Five-Year Plan for Environmental Protection. The tone of this document would come as a shock to anyone familiar with the relentlessly upbeat nature of official Chinese pronouncements—or with the famous mock-news video released by The Onion this spring, in which Chinese authorities burst with pride as they announce their nation’s new status as the No. 1 polluter in the world. (The mock festivities include the “100 Widow Smog Dance” and a spokesman declaring, “The labor of the people has made the sky black with the smoke of progress. We are overjoyed!”)

The “environmental situation is still grave in China though with some positive development,” the real Chinese government said in the English translation it issued. It went on to catalogue a familiar set of problems: “The emissions of major pollutants far exceed environmental capacity with serious environmental pollution … The quality of coastal marine environment is at risk … The number of days with haze in some big and medium sized cities has some increase, and acid rain pollution is not alleviated … The phenomena of no strict observation of laws, little punishment to lawbreakers, poor law enforcement and supervision are still very common.” And on through a very long list, with this stark conclusion: “China is facing [a] grim situation in addressing climate change … Environmental problems at different stages of [the] industrialization process of developed countries over the past several hundred years [are now] concentrate[d] in China.”

The alarming trends mentioned in this report correspond with what the outside world has heard, read, and assumed about the environmental disaster of modern China. A new book or white paper on the topic seems to appear every day. The surprise is seeing them acknowledged in a paper issued not by an international research group but by the Chinese government itself, which has long been accused of refusing to see what is plain to everyone else. The problems, after all, are visible to any tourist from the moment of arrival. Everyone has heard or read about China’s big-city air pollution, yet visitors are still shocked the first time they encounter a bad day in Beijing—or Chongqing or Xian or Shenyang or any of the other large cities with chronically grimy skies.

And the problems that are less obvious at a glance are even more threatening. Toxic emissions into lakes, groundwater, and farmland; the drying-up of rivers and silting-up of dams; the rapid exhaustion of water in the northern half of the country that, in the view of many experts, is likely to be China’s next great environmental emergency; the millions of new cars that hit the road each year, spewing carbon dioxide; the billions of tons of coal that go up in smoke (yes, billions—China burns more than 2 billion tons of coal each year, about one-third of the world’s total); the engines on Chinese airliners that must be overhauled or replaced more frequently than elsewhere, an airline engineer told me, because operating in Chinese air corrodes the turbine blades … living here, I don’t have the heart to keep ticking items off. The title of one authoritative book on the subject, The River Runs Black, by Elizabeth Economy, of the Council on Foreign Relations, conveys the general idea, as does that of her follow-up Foreign Affairs article about China’s environment, “The Great Leap Backward?”

Also see:
James Fallows keeps tabs, on his blog, of the smog levels outside his window.

Through nearly two years in China, including this past winter and spring in Beijing, my wife and I have found the bad air and other forms of pollution to be the only serious challenge—physical, practical, or emotional—we face. We are here temporarily and voluntarily, and we’re living like royalty compared with most local Chinese. Still, we continually face a basic choice. Either we decide we can’t stand the conditions, in which case we should leave—an option for most foreigners but few Chinese. Or we decide that the openness, possibility, and importance of today’s China justify these and other discomforts, in which case we should stop complaining, try to ignore what we don’t like, and be grateful for the historic opportunity we have. We keep deciding to stay. The point is, even privileged outsiders here must live with conditions they can’t change, and those conditions are only a tiny window on the endurance required of the Chinese public.

But remember that other phrase from the government’s 11th Five-Year Plan: there was “some positive development” amid the catastrophe. After travels around the country to look at factories, farms, and conservation projects, and talks with several dozen scientists, think-tank experts, officials, and business people from China and overseas, I came to think that the modestly positive developments merit more of the world’s attention than they’ve received.

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent; his blog is at More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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