The problems caused by coal were not entirely their fault—the state's control over extraction rights and frequent crackdowns encouraged mine owners to cash in as quickly as possible and with minimum concern for safety. But mine owners were a reviled group, who were accused of having blood on their hands, ruining the land and being the epitome of bad taste. Young people who drove flashy cars, wore loud clothes and treated people badly were taunted as being "like the child of a Shanxi mine own- er." The image was not helped by the forty Porsches seen at the ostentatious wedding parade of one of these children.
Pan Yue, the deputy environment minister, described the bosses as little more than parasites. "Coal-mine owners from Shanxi province indiscriminately extract coal and dig up the land, creating pollution. As a result they become extremely wealthy. Once they have polluted Shanxi, however, they do not stay there. Instead they move to Beijing, where they buy luxury villas and push up house prices. They have also pushed up property prices in all the coastal regions of north China. If these areas then become polluted, they will no doubt move to the US, Canada or Australia and cause inflation there too. They create pollution, but are removed from its consequences. They take all the benefits of polluting industries, but pay nothing towards the clean-up costs."
The true cost of the mines never shows up on balance sheets. For the mining provinces, it is a curse. They receive far from a fair market price because the mines are owned by the state and the colliery owners get the rights to profit from extraction. The prosperity of cities like Shanghai and Beijing is based on cheap energy from provinces like Shanxi and Shaanxi, which are left with the environmental and health costs. One influential study estimates the environmental and social costs associated with China's use of coal at about 7.1 per cent of the nation's GDP in 2007.
Industry forecasters say it can't go on. Without a long-term strategic plan, the country's reserves will be exhausted before the end of the century. The government has responded with a drive for more efficiency, the key focus of president Hu Jintao's "Scientific Outlook on Development." It has closed small private mines and opened automated mega-collieries. It has replaced small old thermal plants with supercritical and ultra-supercritical generators equipped with scrubbers and other technology to reduce emissions of nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide (though it has not always been properly used). Policymakers are studying the possibility of a carbon tax. More public funds and utility cash are being invested in "clean coal" technology. Along with the tightening of safety standards, this has begun to drive up the cost of domestic coal, as has Shanxi's introduction of an ecological restoration fund.
Indeed, as prices soared in 2008, many factories in the southeast started importing from Australia and elsewhere. Abandoning coal completely is not, of course, an option, as I learned in a discussion with Xiao Yunhan, an energy visionary at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. "Nobody likes coal, even in China. But do you have a better solution for our energy supply problems?" he said. He expected consumption of coal to double over the following ten years. For at least another two decades, China would be trapped in a coal-dependent economy.
"Even if China utilises every kind of energy to the maximum level, it is still difficult for us to produce enough energy for economic development. It's not a case of choosing coal or renewables. We need both," the senior scientist said. "We have to use coal so the best thing we can do is make that use as efficient as possible."
Unlike the Meng brothers, people will not be expected to eat lumps of anthracite, but industrialists are expected to find new ways to consume carbon. In addition to installing newer and more efficient power plants, China is also ahead of other nations in developing and adopting Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) technology that turns coal into gas, removes impurities, maximises efficiency and can capture carbon. In the future, Xiao predicted plants will be able to turn coal into gas and diesel, capturing and eventually sequestrating carbon dioxide emissions. Some of the technology is at an advanced stage of development.