China’s extraordinary economic boom is fuelled by coal. More than half of all the world’s finished industrial goods are now made in China; they could not have been manufactured without power from coal – China’s black gold. The country produces more coal than anywhere else in the world. But the environmental and human costs are immense.
Most of the miners are farmers who are on the wrong side of the growing rural-urban wealth divide. They head for provinces such as Shanxi and take work down the pits of small, dangerous, mostly private coal mines. Over-mining has hollowed out one-seventh of land in Shanxi and many people live in fear that the earth under their feet may suddenly subside, swallowing them and their houses.
China is now the single largest producer of the greenhouse gas CO2, mostly produced from the burning of coal. A recent World Bank study found that 750,000 people die each year from pollution related illnesses in China. Coal-fired power stations and coal-burning factories are major contributors to this pollution.
Chinese cities are often wrapped in a gray toxic cloud. Only one percent of the country’s 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by the European Union. There are plans to build over 500 new coal-fired power stations to meet China’s insatiable demand for energy. The scale of the industry is unparalleled. Ninety per cent will be coal-fired.