Collieries destroy arable land and grazing pastures, erode topsoil, worsen air and water pollution, increase levels of river sediment (raising the risk of floods), and accelerate deforestation (especially if the coal is used to make charcoal). The country's most pressing environmental problems—acid rain, smog, lung disease, water contamination, loss of aquifers and the filthy layer of black dust that settled on many villages—can all be traced back in varying degrees to this single cause.
Then there are the losses caused by global warming. In 2007 China overtook the US as the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases because it was so dependent on this fossil fuel. For each unit of energy, coal produces 80 per cent more carbon dioxide than natural gas, and 20 per cent more than oil. This does not even include methane released from mines, for which China accounts for almost half the global total.
Coal is compressed history, buried death. Geologists estimate the seams of anthracite and bituminate in northern China were formed from the Jurassic period onward. Within them are the remains of ferns, trees, mosses and other life-forms from millions of years ago. Though long extinguished on the surface world, they still—like ghosts or the Meng brothers—possess form and energy. Consider coal with a superstitious eye and foul air might seem a curse suffered for disinterring pre-ancient life. Described with a little poetic licence, global warming is a planetary fever caused by burning too much of our past. But whether we prefer these archaic formulations or modern science, the conclusion is the same: the more we dig and burn, the worse we breathe.
Given the low priority the Chinese coal industry places on ecological and health concerns, it is little surprise that safety standards are also appalling. The country's collieries are the most dangerous in the world. Since the start of economic reforms, the equivalent of an entire city of people has died underground.
More than 170,000 miners have been killed in tunnel collapses, explosions and floods, a death rate per tonne at least thirty times higher than that in the United States. Countless more will perish prematurely of pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease, because there is little or no protection from the dust in the enclosed tunnels. Mine deaths are so frequent that if the Meng brothers had been less stubborn about surviving, the collapse at their pit could easily have gone unreported. All that is unique in their story is that they emerged to tell the tale.
With 20 per cent of the world's population and a fast growing econ- omy, China needs huge amounts of fuel.
Deposits of oil and gas are small relative to the country's size, but coal is abundant. Unfortunately, it is mostly of low quality and inconveniently located in the northwest, the opposite end of the country from where it is most needed: the manufacturing belt of the southeast.
The cleanest solution would be to transform the fuel into electricity or gas near the source and transfer it via power lines or pipes. But this would mean the mining provinces receiving even less economic benefit. So the coal has to be transported by train, barge and ship at huge extra cost to the economy and the environment. Coal accounts for 40 per cent of the freight on China's railways. On the track from Shanxi through Beijing to the southeast, I counted in astonishment as double locomotives pulled a train of more than two hundred cars each loaded high with more than 60 tonnes of coal and ash. There was another ten minutes later. Then another. A million tons could pass along a single line in a day.
Millions of dollars flow in the other direction. China's spectacular economic rise can be tracked by the volume of coal mined, freighted and burned. During the Mao era, colliery production was held back by centralised price restraints that turned coal into red ink. But after the market reforms of the late 1970s and early 1980s, digging mines suddenly became the quickest way to get rich. The wealth of Shanxi's colliery bosses was notorious.