China's reliance on coal, which provides three-quarters of that nation's vast energy usage, has proved a double-edged sword. Large areas of north-central China have been blighted by the growth in the local coal industry: an industry which is the most unsafe example of its kind in the world, in terms of fatalities among miners (see my previous posting "Coal and Dust" published in April). Severe pollution is mapped across Shaanxi province, and its neighbour, Shanxi province, which is an even more extensive coal producer. Two years ago, the city of Datong, for many years China's coal-capital, was tarred and feathered as one of the world's most polluted cities, a stark contrast to the quite recent branding of Datong as one of China's "most spiritually civilised cities", when throngs of brightly divested children formed a ceremonial line at the entrance of the city's 1,500 year old complex of Buddhist cave grottos.
The air quality in Datong has deteriorated sufficiently that the city's air-monitors were on red alert, and desert dust and particulates forced the pollution index above 300, a level at which people are advised to remain indoors. 4 of China's 10 most polluted cities are in Shanxi province, including Datong. The air in Datong has been described as "(getting) very black" and even during the daytime, people have to drive with their lights on. The coal mining activities have damaged waterways and made the land barren in places, and due to the intensity of underground mining, thousands of hectares of land are at risk of sinking. Hundreds of villages are blackened with coal waste, roads are covered in coal tar, miners haul carts full of coal with their faces blackened by coal dust, and the air is thick with the sulphurous aroma of burning coal.
The incidence of respiratory diseases, including lung cancer, has soared in the past 20 years, but despite years of government intervention and mandate on the issue of atmospheric pollution, the problem has just got worse. Now the Chinese government has pledged its commitment to close the worst offenders, the factories and the most polluting coal mines - these are generally the smallest, and are also those with the most lamentable safety record: the death toll among Chinese coal miners amounts to around 6,000 per year, in comparison with the U.S. toll of about 50, to dig out a comparable amount of coal (just over one billion tonnes, annually). While this government plan sounds laudable, there is apparently no measure being discussed to curtail the Shanxi and Shaanxi regions' coal-fired power plants, and moreover there is a rapidly escalating programme to build more of them, to maintain pace with the soaring energy demand in this industrialised region. In part to provide Beijing with electricity, Shanxi province alone is expected to produce nearly as much coal as was mined last year in the U.K., Germany and Russia combined.
The consequences of burning the coal are felt well beyond the mining locality itself; sulphur dioxide pollution being a major problem, since Chinese coal is heavy in its sulphur content. In 2004, China released 22.5 million tonnes of "sulphur" (45 million tonnes of SO2) into the atmosphere, which is more than twice the amount emitted by the United States, and it is estimated that this figure increased to 52 million tonnes of SO2 in 2005. Around 30% of China is now drenched by acid rain, with the inevitable effect of acidification on crops, trees, rivers and lakes. The effects of such enormous levels of pollution by SO2 and ash are being felt in South Korea, Japan and beyond; countries which may well bear a legacy of respiratory disease as a consequence. In early April, a dense cloud of pollutants swept over northern China to Seoul and floated on over the Pacific, ultimately being detected by researchers in California, Oregon and Washington, who noticed specks of sulphur compounds, carbon (soot) and other byproducts of coal combustion, physically coating the surfaces of their pollution detectors. Pretty unambiguous evidence!
China is faced with some difficult choices. For the past two years, it has increased its coal production by around 14% annually. There is government intention to fit all coal-fired power stations with "sulphur filters" by 2010. The Japanese have offered assistance too, so worried are they about the effect of Chinese generated acid rain on Japan (though 1,000 miles east), and have agreed to lend Shanxi Province $125 million to help pay for desulphurisation equipment for large, coal-fired steel plants in the provincial capital, Taiyuan. Already, China uses more coal than the United States, the European Union and Japan, combined, Every week to 10 days, a new coal-fired power plant opens somewhere in China of sufficient capacity to provide electricity for all the homes in Dallas or San Diago.
Western companies could help China to control its emissions of CO2 and SO2, for instance by subsidising more energy efficient boiler systems. Some companies are involved in such schemes in other countries, but the scale of the emissions from China is tremendous. However, international climate experts remain loathe to admonish China without making an emphatic reference to the fact that China is nowhere near to a western lifestyle for the majority of its population, and that the average American still uses far more energy and releases 10 times more CO2 as a "carbon footprint" than the average Chinese. While China generates much more electricity from coal than the U.S., the latter's consumption of oil in the form of gasoline (petrol) drowns its Chinese equivalent. Given the rate of Chinese industrial growth, and the rise in the number of cars on its roads, it is unlikely that the current status quo will prevail in the future, when these two powerful nations will become embroiled in a struggle over oil, of whatever manner that may issue.