An expert's point of view on a current event.

China’s Coal Addiction

As the U.N. climate summit continues in Cancún, the Guardian's environment correspondent, Jonathan Watts, looks at one problem not likely to improve soon -- the Middle Kingdom's ravenous appetite for cheap coal.

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Getty Images
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View photos of China’s pollution.

Coal is compressed history, buried death. Geologists estimate the seams of anthracite and bituminous coal in northern China, for instance, were formed from the Jurassic period onward. Within them are the remains of ferns, trees, mosses, and other life-forms from millions of years ago. Although long extinguished on the surface world, they still possess form and energy. Consider coal with a superstitious eye, and foul air might seem a curse suffered for disinterring preancient life. Described with a little poetic license, global warming is a planetary fever caused by burning too much of our past.

China recently overtook the United States as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, largely because it is so dependent on this fossil fuel. For each unit of energy, coal produces 80 percent more carbon dioxide than natural gas and 20 percent more than oil. This does not even include methane released from mines, for which China accounts for almost half the global total, or spontaneous combustion of coal seams, which release 100 megatons of energy from coal each year. China’s economy is utterly dependent on coal. It provides 69.5 percent of the country’s energy, a greater degree of reliance than that of any other major country. Cheap coal generates electricity for Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing, fires the steel mills of Huaxi, powers the production lines of Guangdong, and allows consumers in the West to buy Chinese goods at knockdown prices. No other fuel has such an impact on the environment, both local and global.

Air pollution is appalling in almost every city in China. The toll on human health is enormous. Barely 1 percent of the urban population breathes air considered healthy by the World Health Organization, and it is worst in northern China. The result is premature death, lung cancer, bronchitis, and other respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Another high-risk group is poor peasants who slowly poison themselves by heating their homes with dirty coal. But the full risks are obscured. The toxic buildup of lead, mercury, and other heavy metals in the soil and water near coal plants and smelting factories is not usually measured. Entire communities are being poisoned without realizing it.

Yet coal mines are as much a part of China’s civilization as paddy fields. Mining and industry have been crucial in ensuring the longevity of the Middle Kingdom. Despite its reputation as an agricultural civilization, for most of the last 2,000 years China has been by far the world’s biggest producer of coal and iron, a status lost only temporarily in the early 19th century when Britain began industrializing. It is no coincidence that the country’s recent return to great power status has come at a time when it is once again No. 1 in these basic industries and when large numbers of peasants are working below rather than on the surface.

The more I have looked into the deeply entrenched industry in China, the blacker it seems. Over the years, I have talked to black-faced miners at the mouths of illegal pits, descended deep down the shafts of huge state-run collieries, consulted labor activists, and interviewed mine owners and policymakers. The picture that emerges is of a deadly, filthy industry that is trying to clean up but is repeatedly mired by market pressures, weak oversight, and the demands of an economy that is desperate for more fuel. Collieries destroy arable land and grazing pastures, erode topsoil, worsen air and water pollution, increase levels of river sediment (raising the risk of floods), and accelerate deforestation (especially if the coal was used to make charcoal). The country’s most pressing environmental problems — acid rain, smog, lung disease, water contamination, loss of aquifers, and the filthy layer of black dust that has settled on many villages — can all be traced back in varying degrees to this single cause.

Nowhere is this more evident than in northern Shanxi province, a coal-mining stronghold where I went to see how the black subterranean dust fouled the skies above the most polluted city on Earth: Linfen, which has held that unenviable title for most of the previous decade. Shrouded in a spectral haze, the city lies at the heart of a 20-kilometer industrial belt, fed by the 50 million tons of coal mined each year in the nearby hills. When the pollution was at its worst in the late 1990s, the average daily level of particulate matter in the air was over 600 parts per million, far off the hazard scale (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index considers any reading above 200 parts per million as “very unhealthy”). The New York-based research nonprofit Blacksmith Institute once ranked the city alongside Chernobyl on a list of the planet’s 10 most contaminated places.

As I approached this blackest of black lands, the smog was so thick it seemed to consume its source. On the outskirts of the city, smokestacks belched carbon and sulfur into the putrid mist that enveloped them. Iron foundries, smelting plants, and cement factories loomed in and out of the haze as I traveled along the roads leading into Linfen. When the driver stopped in the outlying village of Liucunzhen, locals told us they lived most of their lives in smog.

“We only see the sun for a few days each year,” said Zhou Huocun, a community doctor. “The color of our village is black. It is so dirty that nobody airs their quilts outside anymore so we are getting more parasites.” He had seen a steady increase in respiratory diseases among his patients as the air quality had deteriorated over the years. The unborn were at even greater risk. Shanxi’s birth defect rate is six times higher than the national average (which is itself three to five times the global norm). And coal was to blame.

Of course, China is now trying to clean up its mines and its skies. On the orders of the central government, Linfen was closing down small, illegal collieries and the worst-polluting factories. I dropped in at the city’s environment bureau to ask whether these measures were working. The director, Yang Zhaofen, had progress to report. Of a sort. “Linfen is no longer the most polluted city in China,” he announced proudly. “It is the second worst.”

The local government was taking countermeasures. As in many other cities, it was switching to gas-powered central heating instead of coal. Yang told me it had already shut down hundreds of small mines and were in the process of closing 160 of 196 iron foundries and 57 of 153 coking plants. Small, dirty, and dangerous operations were to be replaced by large, cleaner, and more carefully regulated facilities. But I had heard that before. Over the years, local governments announced coal-mine closures as often as crackdowns on markets of pirated goods. Neither usually lasted long. As soon as the price rose and attention shifted, the illegal mines and fake DVD shops reopened. Old habits die hard, especially when there’s money to be made. Precedent suggested many of the closed factories and mines would reopen. As long as the demand for coal persisted, the risks to the environment and health would not go away.

With 20 percent of the world’s population and an economy that continues to grow, China needs huge amounts of fuel. Deposits of oil and gas are small relative to the country’s size, but coal is abundant. When I met with Xiao Yunhan, an energy visionary at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, he told me: “Nobody likes coal, even in China. But do you have a better solution for our energy-supply problems?” he said. He expects consumption of coal to double over the following 10 years. For at least another two decades, said Yunhan, China will be trapped in a coal-dependent economy.

“Even if China utilizes every kind of energy to the maximum level, it is still difficult for us to produce enough energy for economic development. It’s not a case of choosing coal or renewables. We need both,” the senior scientist said. “We have to use coal, so the best thing we can do is make that use as efficient as possible.”

Jonathan Watts is Asia environment correspondent for The Guardian and the author of When a Billion Chinese Jump, from which this article is adapted.

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