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If images of the smog and smoke-covered cities in China aren't a clear enough indication of China's pollution problems, then consider this: These levels of pollution will cause 500 million people to lose an aggregate 2.5 billion years from their lives. Fortunately, at the beginning of September, China announced it was working to cut back on coal use. These plans include ruling out any construction of new coal power plants in and around China's major cities. However, according to an essay in the journal Nature Climate Change, China is planning to build 40 new synthetic natural gas (SNG) plants. These plants will convert coal into natural gas, which would ideally burn more cleanly and clear the air in major cities.

But in an attempt to clear the urban air, China is blowing smoke, so to speak, into its countryside. These SNG plants will be built in places like Mongolia or Xianjian, hidden away from the cities. Making matters worse, the plants aren't environmentally friendly. They will create an estimated 36-82% more greenhouse gas emissions than burning coal. SNG has a carbon footprint that is roughly seven times that of conventional natural gas. Cleaning up the pollution in cities may drive up foreign tourism in China, but it's only adding to greenhouse emissions. Does China actually care about the environment?

As of now, China has approved nine of these plants. On their own, these plants will create 21 billion tons of carbon dioxide over 40 years, according to Professors Chi-Jen Yang and Robert B. Jackson of Duke University, authors of the piece in Natural Climate Change. Yang and Jackson suggest Chinese policymakers either delay the construction of these plants or, better yet, cancel them.

Yang and Jackson argue that fracking for shale gas is a less damaging alternative for the climate and the economy. But, like many energy options, it's a double-edge sword. Not only does fracking have its own environmental pitfalls, which include pumping dangerous chemicals into water supplies, but China also has to get through both geographic and bureaucratic challenges. As of right now, natural gas makes up only about 4% of China's energy consumption while coal weighs in at about 70%.

Needless to say, China is in a rather difficult situation, environmentally, politically and economically. If all else fails, tourists can always pretend Hong Kong's skyline is picture perfect.