By Mary Kay Magistad
No one needs to sell China on coal. It’s the stuff that fuels 70 percent of this country’s energy, and 80 percent of its electricity.
And yet, at an international coal industry conference in Beijing this autumn, an American coal executive spoke with almost evangelical zeal.
“We believe that energy poverty is the world’s top priority, putting people first, not climate change,” said Frederick Palmer, the senior vice president of Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private sector coal company. “We believe the challenge of ending energy poverty is global, and the solution is coal.”
Leave aside, for the moment, the nagging concern that excessive emissions from coal could lead to so much climate change – floods, droughts, and other extreme weather, affecting harvests, food security and the ability of people to continue to live in some areas – that it would be hard to top that on the list of the planet’s priorities.
I was intrigued by something else Mr. Palmer had to say.
“Electricity enables more people to live longer, and live better,” he said. “Every ten-fold increase in per capita electricity use drives a 10-year increase in longevity.”
Whoa. Could that possibly be true? Every ten-fold increase in per capita energy use results in a 10-year increase in longevity?
I thought of a mountain village I’d visited a dozen years ago in the southern part of Ningxia province, one of China’s poorest. Villagers lived in caves, carved out of the hills that looked out on a dusty loess moonscape. When I visited, the village had just gotten electricity. Suddenly, there were lights, at night, to read or sew or work or chat by. There was, inevitably, a television – and villagers clustered around, bewildered by the glossy shampoo commercials and soap operas of fast and flashy urban life.
One young woman, I remember, had a single bare lightbulb, hanging from the center of the ceiling in her cave. The wiring snaked outside, where it was grounded against the outside wall with a tennis shoe. I asked her what difference having this had made for her. She lowered her head, embarrassed. “I can’t afford to pay the bill for the electricity, so I don’t use it,” she said. She said she was poor enough that she sometimes had to go hungry – hungry enough that she didn’t have breast milk for her baby girl.
The village left an indelible impression on me, and a couple of years ago, I went back to see how people there were doing. The woman with the infant and the single lightbulb in her cave were gone. No one seemed to know where they went. But otherwise – this was still quite recognizably the place I’d visited more than a decade before. The dirt road to the village was still bumpy and narrow – and probably still impassable when it rained. The villagers said they now trucked in water, because the area was so dry, and the water table kept dropping.
I asked a group of villagers, including the village chief, if they felt having electricity had made a big difference for them. “Not really,” came the reply. “A good road, and better irrigation would make a bigger difference.” Those who had money in the village had relatives working as migrant workers in cities. Even then, they said, the cost of living kept going up, and they felt like they were running just to stay in place.
It’s hard to believe that another ten-fold increase in electricity would increase these villagers’ lifespans by a decade – certainly not if there was still no clean water supply, or no enhancement of health care available to them.
And then I think of my own life – and that of my urban-dwelling neighbors and friends. We’re already pretty comfortable. We already light our rooms, tap away at our computers, watch our televisions, run our refrigerators and, in the summer, our air conditioners. How would a ten-fold increase in electricity prolong our lives, even by a month? How would we even find a way to use it?
Ok, I belabor the point. The statistic was no doubt meant to refer to the populations of nations, suggesting that when a nation increases its electricity (from a very low base), the population as a whole lives longer, on average. But it’s hard, with such things, to prove direct cause and effect, or to separate them out from other possible contributors to a longer lifespan – cleaner water, better nutrition, better health care, better education.
And when singing the praises of coal, as the fuel that will stretch lifespans, you have to weigh against the potential benefits the fact that coal emissions also contribute to respiratory disease and early death. In China, according to The World Bank, some 700,000 Chinese die prematurely each year due to causes related to pollution – not all, but many, from coal.
Still, Frederick Palmer is convinced coal is the future.
“The past, the present, and the future – global economic miracle, fueled by coal,” he said. “The correlations are powerful, historically. All projections going forward say the world GDP and coal utilization will go up hand in glove…I think it would be immoral to say we are not going to touch coal.”
Was anyone actually saying that?
Coal remains at the core of China’s energy mix. Even the United States uses coal for about a third of its power generation. But both China and the United States are increasingly embracing the idea that cleaner coal is better, and cleaner energy yet – like solar and wind – is best of all. What’s more, with wind energy capacity in China having doubled each year for the past five and solar ramping up fast, China seems to be positioning itself to become global leader in promising new technologies – and aiming for a future less sooty than its past.