To be fair, China is also fast expanding its renewable energy sector, and trying hard to improve energy efficiency. But it still intends to continue to get most of its energy from coal for decades to come. And in the midst of continued economic growth, and an epic move of hundreds of millions of Chinese from villages to cities, China’s overall emissions are expected to keep increasing for at least another 20 years.
That’s sobering news for the planet, and for China – which is already paying a steep environmental and human cost for its reliance on coal.
Coal miner Zhong Guangwei is part of that cost. He’s 37, and the odds are against him reaching 40. After just 10 months of working in a small, private mine in Shanxi province, drilling holes in the wall of a mine shaft and placing sticks of dynamite to blow out the coal, he developed a severe case of pneumoconiosis – better known as “black lung disease.” He’s had it about three years, and it usually kills within six.
“Down in the mine, the coal dust was so thick, we couldn’t even see people who were four or five feet away,” Zhong says. “We had to just shout out to each other, to see who was around. There were no safety precautions, and the ventilation was terrible.”Zhong huddles now in a blanket, in the spartan whitewashed room he shares with his wife, his 12-year-old daughter and two-year-old son. His six-year-old daughter is back in his farm village, going to school. Zhong says the relatively high pay at the mine, and the chance it gave to let his children rise above the rural poverty he grew up in, was a big reason why he took the job in the first place, and stuck with it long after he developed a cough that wouldn’t go away.
His wife, Wang Xiaoxia, recalls the nights when Zhong when straggle home from the mine, exhausted and looking like a stranger.
“His face was completely covered in coal dust,” she says. “I couldn’t have recognized him on the street. He had to use two big basins of water to wash away all the dust.”
There was no such treatment for his lungs. The doctors at first told him he had a cold, or the flu, or the usual winter respiratory maladies. Zhong’s employer didn’t want to know. Zhong took the case to court, and eventually – after a long battle that included Zhong’s wife getting roughed around by court officials, because they were annoyed with her persistence – was awarded $40,000, as compensation for being able to live just half his life.
Stories like this one are repeated thousands of times each year in China, often without the dying coal miner getting any compensation. This is just a tiny sliver of the price that China pays for getting 70 percent of its energy from coal.
China is, in fact, the world’s biggest producer and consumer of coal. And it’s primarily coal that has powered the country’s unprecedented recent growth. But it’s literally killing thousands of Chinese a year. Besides the thousands of coal miners who die a slow, painful death from pneumoconiosis each year, China’s mine accident fatality rate is still by far the highest in the world. About 1,600 Chinese coal miners died in accidents last year – down from an official toll of some 6,000 in 2004. That same year, the death toll from coal mine accidents in the United States was 28. Even when you consider that China produces twice as much coal, and has 50 times more coal mine workers, there’s still a four times greater chance of dying in a coal mine accident in China that in the United States.
The Chinese government is not blind to this fact. A few years back, when galloping economic growth was demanding more energy than China’s power plants could provide, and factories were buying their own diesel generators, the government thought it might be a good idea to let villages and private citizens open small coal mines, to make a little profit, and provide more fuel, more quickly. But safety measures in many of these mines were sketchy if they existed at all, and the high death rates have caused the government, over the past couple of years, to close many of these smaller mines. That’s lowered the death rate, but Zhang Guobao, the director of China’s National Energy Administration, says there’s still no room for complacency.
“We still see dozens of people dying in a single coal mine accident, and it belittles the achievements we’ve made,” Zhang told an international coal industry conference in Beijing this autumn. “There are still explosions and accidents, causing a lot of deaths. It humbles us.”
Zhang, who’s also vice-chair of the Chinese government’s policy-formulating body, the National Development and Reform Commission, said he knew conferences like this one were supposed to let the coal industry bask in its achievements and plot its course for even faster future development. But there, too, he sounded a note of caution.
“At our current pace, we could increase production by 200 million tons of coal a year,” Zhang said. “We can reach that target. But problems with emissions make us wonder if we should set that target. You here in the coal industry want to hear about ambitious plans, but we have to think about the environment.”
Some residents in coal mining country have no choice but to think of the environmental costs of coal mining. In the mountains on Beijing’s far western fringe, small illegal mines have sucked the water dry, and caused the ground to crater and shift. In the once bucolic village of Xiyuetai, with its stunning view of distant hills, houses are cracked and crumbling, and most of the villagers have left.
One who remains, Zhang Wenli, stays because generations of his family grew up here, because his 140 sheep and goats are used to grazing on these hills , and because, he says, he has nowhere else to go.
“The coal mines have ruined the whole village,” he says, leaning on his walking staff and keeping an eye on his wandering sheep. “We used to have lots of very clean water. Now, the river has run dry, and we have to get expensive water from trucks that come in.”
And not only have houses cracked and collapsed, he says, but the mountains themselves are cracking.
“We’re afraid that mudslides or landslides could engulf the whole village,” he says. “It’s not so bad in the winter, when everything is frozen. But in the spring, we really worry.”
As bad as all this is, the costs of coal are not confined to the environmental and human costs of getting it out of the ground, and transporting it to where it will be used.. There’s also the environmental and human costs of using it.
Start with air pollution. It’s rampant in China, and much of it comes from burning coal. Smog in major Chinese cities often registers “hazardous” on an international scale. The World Bank has estimated that some 700,000 Chinese a year die prematurely due to causes related to pollution – many, linked to coal. And as China’s air pollution has worsened, some doctors have seen a shift of disease patterns.
“Right now, more and more people die from lung cancer,” says Dr. Wang Guangfa, the head of Pulmonary Medicine at a Peking University’s First Hospital,,. In our ward now, one-third of the patients have lung cancer, and a growing number have this new adenoidal kind. It’s a big issue for us.”
Dr. Wang says, in the past, the main killer on his ward was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – a condition most commonly linked to smoking. Although almost half of Chinese men still smoke, it no longer tops the list. And, he says, many of the lung cancer patients he sees have never smoked.
Air pollution has also been linked to a rising rate of birth defects in China. The government says they rose 40 percent between 2001 and 2006. And a study by Nanjing University, tracking 26,000 pregnant women in the relatively affluent eastern province of Jiangsu, found that one in ten birth defects there were caused by environmental pollution.
Smog may even be changing China’s weather. A study by the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state, studied 50 years’ worth of data on rainfall patterns in China, and noticed a shift.
“What we’ve found is, in the past 50 years, the light rain in China, the steady drizzle needed to sustain crops, has significantly reduced,” says atmospheric climatologist Qian Yun, who led the study. He says this is because particulates, mainly from coal, in the almost permanent cloud of smog stretching across northern and eastern China, interferes with the ability of droplets to form.
The concern is that in the long term, smog from coal and other sources will reduce harvests, further impoverish farmers, and perhaps affect China’s food supply.Smog from coal is even affecting China’s cultural heritage. One of China’s most ancient sites is a series of 5th and 6th century grottoes just outside Datong. There, tour guides with megaphones point out how the region’s heavy air pollution has worn away at the grottoes’ exquisitely carved Buddhas and bodhisattvas. A visitor need only go to a well-sheltered alcove inside one of the caves, to compare a well-preserved 1,500-year-old carving there, with the sand-blasted look of the statues outside.
Datong has long been notorious for its sooty air. It leaves a film on sidewalks. It sticks in your throat. On a recent autumn evening, it made it impossible to see the ancient drum tower, even when standing a hundred yards away. But residents here seem to take it in stride.
“It’s better than how it used to be,” chuckles Zhao Xi, a 73-year-old man with a stoop and deeply lined face. “When I was young, I could never see the sky.”
China is kind of like that, on a larger scale. Its coal-fired power plants are cleaner and more efficient than they used to be. But there are ever more of them, and thus, ever more emissions. China’s leaders know they have a problem. But they also don’t want anything to get in the way of economic rise. Since coal is relatively cheap and plentiful, it remains the fuel of choice, even as the government looks for ways to cut the costs to the environment, and to human health. The trick is getting the balance right, and fast – before both China, and the world, face a higher cost than anyone’s willing to pay. Download MP3