China is destroying itself: mountains leveled to create land, contaminated soil, toxic air

[This destruction has been going on for a long time, and just adds to what Chairman Mao did while he was ruler.   Alice Friedemann]

Li, P., et al. June 5, 2014. Accelerate research on land creation. China’s campaign to bulldoze mountains to build cities needs expertise to avert geoengineering problems. Nature 510: 29-31.

Land for development in China is in short supply, particularly in mountainous areas, where about one-fifth of the population lives. In the past decade, local governments have begun removing the tops of mountains to fill in valleys to create land on which to build. For example, In Lanzhou, China, 700 mountains are being leveled to create more than 250 square kilometers of flat land.

Land creation by cutting off hilltops and moving massive quantities of dirt is like performing major surgery on Earth’s crust. Mountaintop moving has been done before in strip mining, especially in the eastern United States. But it has never been carried out on this scale. In China, dozens of hills 100–150 meters in height are being flattened over hundreds of kilometers. Such infill has never been used for urban construction. There are no guidelines for creating land in the complex geological and hydro-geological conditions that are typical of mountainous zones.

Land-creation projects are already causing air and water pollution, soil erosion and geological hazards such as subsidence. They destroy forests and farmlands and endanger wild animals and plants. The city of Shiyan, for example, lies near the headwaters of the South–North Water Transfer Project — a major initiative to divert water from rivers through canals in southern China to Beijing and the north. There, the changing of hills to plains has caused landslides and flooding, and altered watercourses. This causes greater soil erosion, increasing the sediment content of local water sources.

In Yan’an, the air is often brown with dust owing to construction teams working on windy days without dampening the soil. Forests and plants on hills and in gullies are stripped ahead of the demolition and filling. This increases the risk of soil erosion and groundwater loss, because farmlands and forests block wind and retain moisture and soil grains. During the earth-moving project in the city of Lanzhou, soil erosion is expected to increase by 10% and concentrations of dust particles in the air by 49%.

Environmentalists, ecologists, hydrogeologists, engineers and decision-makers must collaborate to find solutions to environmental problems — including the disappearances of small creeks, endangering of wild animals and birds and altered groundwater flows.

Peak Oil Review. 21 APR 2014. ASPO-USA newsletter.

As the weeks roll by, it is becoming clearer that major changes are underway in China which is apt to have an impact on its energy consumption and economic growth in the years ahead.  After 40 years of unprecedented growth and increase in fossil fuel consumption at the expense of the environment, the good times came to an end last year when it became obvious that much of China was so polluted that human life was endangered.

Much of China’s boom was supported by a phenomenal growth in coal consumption which rose from 300 million tons annually in 1970 to 4.3 billion tons last year. Until recently, annual growth in coal consumption in has mostly ranged in the vicinity of 10 to 20 percent a year, dwarfing efforts in the rest of the world to cut back on carbon emissions and discouraging those countries that were making carbon control efforts.

In the wake of China’s 2013 “Airpocalypse,” however, in which pollution reached near-lethal levels in several major cities, there have been major changes in policies. Last fall the Chinese government released a new plan recognizing that significant reductions in coal consumption will have to take place if the country is to avoid an environmental disaster.  The government is now committed to reducing coal consumption within the next four years. If these plans are implemented there will be significant changes in the way China gets its energy. Beijing for example is to cut coal consumption by 50 percent in the four years.

While spectacular growth in coal consumption is likely over, at 4.3 billion tons annual consumption even relatively small growth rates of 2 or 3 percent a year still amounts to a lot of carbon going into the atmosphere. China is still projected to be consuming some 5 billion tons annually by 2020. To offset the loss of growing coal consumption, Beijing is making major strides in developing renewables, solar, wind, hydro, and building more nuclear power stations. It also plans major increases in natural gas consumption.  Thus the key issue for the remainder of the decade is whether China can maintain economic growth rates on the order of 7.5 percent a year while cutting back on coal.

It is important to note that while Beijing seems to have a lingering concern about carbon emissions and climate change, the proximate cause of the new policies is unbreathable air and ever increasing soil contamination, which already has left some 20 percent of China’s agricultural land too polluted for growing crops safely.

The word from Beijing is that a new environmental protection law will be published later this year, which will for the first time prioritize the environment over economic growth. This law will be a major change in the way the Peoples’ Republic does business.

Last week, Beijing revealed that its economic growth slowed to an 18-month low in the first quarter. While some of this is clearly due to lower exports, a reduction in the rate at which new power plants are being brought on line is obviously contributing to the slowdown in growth.

Where China’s oil consumption goes in the effort to clean up the environment remains to be seen. While there has been an effort to cut car use in the major cities, new cars are still being sold at prodigious rates as increasing wealthy Chinese motorized their society as the US and later Europe did after World War II.  Even a modest growth rate anywhere near 7 percent is going to require increasing oil and natural gas imports to keep the society functioning.

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