The great coal rush in China -- brought on by its voracious power needs -- is the biggest since the 19th century. Coal seems the natural answer as oil is considered too expensive at $60 a barrel, and alternative power sources such as hydroelectric power and wind power compensate for only a fraction of the country's demand. China currently has more than 21,000 coalmines in operation, and around 2,000 coal-fired power stations, with plans to build at least 500 more. Zeng Peiyan, a vice-premier for the nation, said that coal output had doubled in the last five years, and experts predict that the country will burn 2.5 billion tons of the material this year.
The great boons from this growth have come at a terrible cost, however. Most of the coal-fired power stations in operation are not modernized and emit large amounts of smoke, carbon dioxide and sulfur into the atmosphere. The toxic clouds kicked up from coal mining and burning activities are big enough to be seen from space, and have drifted to faraway locations such as California. These clouds contain microscopic chemical particles known to cause cancer, heart and lung conditions.
China itself is suffering immediate effects as well. Smoking is already popular among the populace, and cancer rates are climbing rapidly thanks to the pollution, which is thought to cause roughly 400,000 premature deaths annually.
The city of Datong, near Beijing, is known as the country's "coal capital" and is one of the four dirtiest towns in China. The city sits almost directly in the middle of the nation's coal belt in Shanxi province, which by itself produces more coal than all of Britain, Russia and Germany combined. Drivers in Datong often have to turn their headlights on in the daytime just to see through the thick smoke and soot particles in the air.
The miners are paying a terrible price as well, as the Chinese media reported 3,818 deaths in 2,456 underground accidents in 2006, giving China the world's worst casualty rate for miners. Journalists say the number is actually higher, but mine bosses and local party leaders have covered up some of the disasters.
The vested interests of mine bosses and political figures, not to mention the lucrative nature of the business, have led them to shut down any attempts to slow China's coal-fired growth. According to a survey conducted by the provincial bureau for environmental protection, 90 percent of mayors and local cadres were opposed to any moves that protected the environment or could slow the country's economic growth. This puts them at odds with the people, as the same survey reported more than 90 percent of respondents felt China's economic growth is coming at too high a price.
"While normal people die of polluted air and water, officials use mineral water to wash their vegetables and even their feet," said analyst Yue Jianguo. "People can't tolerate the pollution any longer but officials only care about their political achievements of hitting targets for growth. If this policy isn't stopped, China will become a land where there are only graves, no people."
"If we don't protect our environment, our economic miracle will soon come to an end," said Pan Yue, head of the government's state environmental protection bureau. "Acid rain falls on one third of China's land, most of our biggest seven rivers are poisoned, a quarter of our people have no clean drinking water and a third of them breathe polluted air."
Currently, China is the second largest source of greenhouse gasses in the world, behind the United States, but the International Energy Agency released a report in November predicting that China would overtake the United States by 2030. Like the United States, China has not ratified the Kyoto protocol -- the international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions -- and the countries that have may see the accord made redundant by both countries' refusal to participate.
Slowing the toxic output of China's coal is not out of the question. There are filters available that can cut smokestack emissions by 95 percent, but the government has been unable to get local leaders to pay for them or other Western technologies that could clean up power stations. Other countries are working to turn China toward more environmentally friendly energy production methods. One group of bioenergy scientists from Aston University in Birmingham, England developing a technique in which the "biomass" of rice husks, straw, crop wastes and reeds are burned along with the coal.
The strange result of China's pollution is that some of it may actually be slowing global warming, according to some scientists. They say the sulfur dioxide emissions are so huge that particles are actually reflecting sunlight back into space, although the researchers also noted that the effect would eventually be overwhelmed by the country's carbon dioxide output.