The world's largest coal base. Image: Lu Guang/Greenpeace
China, faced with ever-worsening pollution in its major cities—a recent report deemed Beijing "barely suitable for living"—is doing what so many industrializing nations have done before it: banishing its titanic smog spewers to poor or rural areas so everyone else can breathe easier. But China isn't just relegating its dirty coal-fired power plants to the outskirts of society; for years, it's been building 16 unprecedentedly massive, brand new "coal bases" in rural parts of the country. There, they won't stifle China's megacities; they'll churn out enough pollution to help smother the entire world.
The biggest of those bases, the Ningdong Energy and Chemical Industry Base, spans nearly 400 square miles, about the size of LA. It's already operational, and seemingly always expanding. It's operated by Shenhua, one of the biggest coal companies in the world. China hopes to uses these coal bases not just to host some of the world's largest coal-fired power plants, but to use super-energy intensive technology to convert the coal into a fuel called syngas and use it to make plastics and other materials.
Syngas is healthier to breathe when burned than typical coal—but as Motherboard has noted before, synthesizing the stuff emits nearly twice the carbon pollution. That's why when Inside Climate News, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative environmental outfit, traveled to China to investigate the operation, they, and a number of climate experts concluded it would "doom the climate."
Ningdong is the fossil fuel-guzzling centerpiece to the effort. Here's how Inside Climate's William J. Kelly describes the massive operation 700 miles west of Beijing:
Conceived in 2003, Shenhua said it broke ground in 2008 on the 386-square-mile coal base. That's an area about three-quarters the size of Los Angeles that's being covered bit by bit over a period of some 17 years with coal mines, power plants, power lines, pipelines, roads, rail tracks and all manner of chemical processing plants with their towers, smokestacks and tanks ... The project is so huge that engineers used the world's largest crane to set in place the unit that's to serve as the heart of the plant, a 2,155-ton Fischer-Tropsch synthesis reactor that's as high as a 17-story building.
Greenpeace has documented the carnage caused by the project in the region, charging that the coal plants are "triggering severe water crises in the country’s arid Northwest. This huge amount of water will be used for the water-intensive coal extraction, forcing deterioration of arid grassland and forcing herders to seek alternative livelihoods." In fact, the only limit on many of these coal plants that activists see is water itself—if they dry out the local water supplies, they won't be able to use it to extract coal.
It's projected to finally be finished by the end of the decade, when it will produce a jaw-dropping 30,000 MW of power, sucking down 100 million tons of coal every year in the process. And it's just one of over a dozen such sprawling operations.
As such, Ningdong does a fairly good job of epitomizing China's grave threat to the global climate system. A recent paper in Nature Climate Change noted that if all of the coal-to-gas plants get built, they'd produce 21 billion tons of CO2 alone. The Washington Post's Brad Plumer puts that in context: "The entire nation of China produced 7.7 billion tons of carbon-dioxide in 2011." Put simply, China's on a path to produce an unholy amount of carbon pollution.
Writing in Rolling Stone, Bill McKibben estimated that, based on climatologists' forecasts, humans worldwide can can only safely burn some 365 gigatons (or billions of tons) of carbon before we seriously disrupt the global climate system. Using those estimates, Kelly notes that even if China where to burn just 10 billion tons of carbon each year, that would put it "on track to consume the world's remaining 349 billion tons by 2050." After that, the table is set for runaway, or catastrophic, global warming.
China's giant coal bases, then, may very well be the largest looming threat to a stable global climate.