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The Carbon Trap: Can China Survive without Coal?

The continuing importance of coal presents a dilemma
modern-china



© Jonathan Watts

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Jonathan Watt's book, When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind--or Destroy It.

Cold, dark, silent. Close to death. Buried in the depths of a collapsed, illegal coal mine, Meng Xianchen and Meng Xianyou knew they had been given up for dead.

The rescue effort had been abandoned. The two brothers could no longer hear the sound of mechanical diggers, drills and spades above their heads. Dismayed and exhausted, they had stopped yelling frantically for help.

How long had it been? Hours, days, weeks? There was no way of knowing. When their mobile phone batteries died, they lost all track of time.

And place. With the silence and the darkness came disorientation. They were unsure which way led to the surface and which led deeper into the mountain. They had little evidence that they were even still alive. It was like being lost inside a tomb.

Above ground, their families were already preparing a funeral. In accordance with tradition, relatives had started burning 'ghost money' for the two brothers to spend in the other world. Negotiations had begun with the local authorities about compensation. Yet down below, the Mengs stubbornly refused to die.

Driven by a powerful instinct to survive, they fought against the earth and the darkness, against death itself. The brothers started digging. They hacked and shovelled, using a single pick and their bare hands. They were only a few dozen metres from the surface, but despite twenty years of mining experience, they were so panicked and confused by the darkness that they started to worry they were tunnelling deeper into the mountain. They changed direction once, twice, three times, before deciding to head straight up.

With every hour that passed they grew wearier and more depressed. It grew harder to dig, exhausting even to crawl. They filled water bottles with urine. The taste was so foul, they could only drink in small sips and felt like crying after they swallowed. Desperately hungry, Xianchen took to nibbling finger-sized pieces of coal, not knowing it had zero nutritional value. Yet they kept digging. Their companionship was a source of comfort and strength. They slept in each other's arms to stave off the cold and told jokes about their wives to maintain morale. 'My wife will be happy after I die. She can find a rich husband in Shenyang to replace me,' mused Xianchen out loud, then laughingly contradicted himself. 'But then again, she is an ugly woman with two children so it will be hard for her to remarry.' Humour does not get much blacker than laughter in a collapsed coal mine. But it kept them going for six days, until finally, miraculously, they scratched their way to the surface.

Weak and close to starvation, they emerged blinking into the light, then staggered to the village where they were met with a hero's welcome and incredulous joy that the dead could rise from their tombs. They were carried off to hospital, where the doctors treated their damaged kidneys and journalists bombarded them with questions. The mine owner, meanwhile, was on the run. Aware that the standard bribes would not protect him from a deadly accident investigation, he had fled as soon as he heard of the collapse.

The survival of the magnificent Meng brothers made front-page headlines in Beijing. Their experience captured the Chinese zeitgeist of the past thirty years—gritty, poor, dirty, illegal, dangerous, willing to go to almost any lengths to get ahead, ill as a result, but surviving long after being written off. They had been trapped in a carbon hell in which they dug, ate, inhaled and were almost suffocated by coal, yet they had lived to tell the tale.

China finds itself in a similar predicament in the first decade of this century. Demand for energy continues to grow and most of it comes from underground. The economy is utterly dependent on coal. It provides 69.5 per cent of the country's energy, a greater degree of reliance than that of any other major nation. This, more than anything, explains why China is so cautious in setting carbon targets in international climate talks such as the 2009 summit in Copenhagen. Cheap coal generates electricity for Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing, fires the steel mills of Huaxi, powers the production lines of Guangdong, and allows consumers in the West to buy Chinese goods at a knockdown price. No other fuel has such an impact on the environment.

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.

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.

"That's my idea. At Shanxi and Shaanxi, coal-to-oil and IGCC will be integrated into one system. In this regard, China is ahead of other nations. The US is only talking about this," he told me matter-of-factly over a cup of green tea.

The technology is expensive, but Xiao estimated that China could build and operate IGCC plants for about a third of the price of the US. In the near future, he predicted China would have to choose whether to invest primarily in supercritical plants, which burn coal efficiently, or IGCC facilities that dealt more effectively with carbon. The latter are more expensive, but price is not the only consideration. "The uncertainty of climate change constraints is a factor in deciding which plants we build," he said. "If we don't need to worry about CO2 emissions, then supercritical plants make more sense. But if we are concerned about carbon dioxide, then IGCC is the best. This is the big decision we must make in the next five to ten years . . . Sequestration will be the final solution for carbon dioxide control. But before that we should try other things."

Isn't the priority in the long term to reduce demand?" I asked.

He shrugged and smiled. "We cannot deny people a happy life. But we also must not deny future generations a happy life," I said.

"True," he replied.

From When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind--or Destroy It by Jonathan Watts. © 2010 Jonathan Watts. Reproduced by permission of Scribner.

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