Excerpted from Coal Wars: The Future of Energy and the Fate of the Planet, by Richard Martin. Palgrave Macmillan Trade. Copyright © 2015. Reprinted with permission. (Scientific American is part of Macmillan Publishers.)

By the early 20th century, the coal industry, though still fragmented, extended across China. The production and use of coal expanded after the forced opening of the empire following the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century. Despite the chaos that engulfed the countryside and the withering of the central government in the last decades of the Qing dynasty, coal helped accelerate industrialization: the first railway line officially sanctioned by the government was built to reach the Kaiping coal mines in Hebei Province. Coal fueled the railway explosion, funded by European banks, that saw 1,000 miles of new rail lines laid between 1912 and 1920, stretching from Canton in the south to Manchuria in the north. China’s first large-scale industrial complex, producing iron and steel, was built in the early years of the twentieth century at the Han-Ye-Ping coal mines in Hubei Province.

Coal also played a central role in China’s revolutionary politics. During the Battle of Shanghai, the National Revolutionary Army fought to hold off imperial Japanese troops in one of the major engagements of the Second Sino-Japanese War. In the three-month siege—which ended with the fall of the city on November 26, 1937—the burgeoning Shanghai coal industry mobilized to aid the soldiers, forming a battlefield rescue operation called the Shanghai Coal Industry Ambulance Corps. Coal laborers were a major source of recruits for the Communist Party, and after the fall of Shanghai dozens of the drivers, along with their vehicles, joined the New Fourth Army, the fledgling outfit that would become a key unit of the communist Chinese forces. The coal workers’ support for the revolution “led to a triangular relationship between coal industry capitalists, the [ambulance] corps itself, and the Communist army based in the countryside,” writes Allison Rottman in her history of revolutionary Shanghai. That relationship helped to shape the complex dynamics of wartime China as well as the history of Maoist China after World War II. Like Stalin, who gained fame organizing the oil workers in Baku, Mao got his start in the energy industry. At the Han-Ye-Ping complex, where more than 20,000 workers toiled, Mao cut his teeth as a labor organizer, helping to organize the famous 1922 strike at the Anyuan mine, which served as a springboard for the revolution.

China’s coal wealth formed a key piece of the vast mosaic of conflict that would coalesce into World War II: energy-poor Japan invaded northern China in the 1930s in part to seize the rich coal deposits of Manchuria.

After the war, energy from coal helped fuel Mao’s disastrous economic experiments—although coal shortages became a major factor in the disastrous attempts at industrial development (including the notorious “backyard steel furnaces” that produced useless pig iron rather than steel) during the Great Leap Forward. Big state-owned mines were established under central planning, becoming centers not only of industry but housing, education, and services—the “coal cities” that would dominate economic life in many provinces well into the twenty-first century.

Once economic reform took hold in the 1980s, the country’s hunger for coal to produce steel, concrete, and electricity became insatiable. The architects of reform under paramount leader Deng Xiaoping realized early on that economic growth depended entirely on abundant supplies of coal. They adopted a policy of unfettered development of large, medium-sized, and small mines simultaneously. If you had a pickax, a mule, and a cart to load, you could become a coal miner. Millions did.

In 1987 coal production surpassed 1 billion tons for the first time. From 1980 to 1996, production more than doubled, from 683 million tons to more than 1.4 billion. In the coal-producing regions—the coal belt that stretches from Inner Mongolia to Xinjiang in the far west, encompassing the whole of Shanxi Province in the north—mines sprang up with little regard for safety, the availability of water, transport capability, or environmental consequences. In truth, by the turn of the 21st century the Chinese coal industry had changed little since before the war. Mechanization had come to the big mines, but in most mines the work was done mostly by hand, performed by men willing to crawl into dark underground chambers and hack away at the rock face because they had few other options for making a living. Profits were as scarce as safety: coal industry losses before the reforms of the 1990s stretched into the hundreds of millions of dollars per year. The five-year plan for 1991–95 called for the elimination of 400,000 coal mining jobs, nearly 6 percent of the 7 million workers in the industry. Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, known as “One-Chop Zhu” for his ruthless management style, was shown on state TV in 1992 angrily lecturing coal managers at a large mine in Shanxi Province for their waste and profligate hiring practices. Slowly, the industry was forced to modernize.

At the same time, the State Power Corporation—the state-controlled monopoly that generated and transmitted electricity in China up through the reforms of the mid-1990s—launched an astonishing binge of power plant construction that continued through the first decade of the twentieth century.

After the revolution, in which the communists took control of the shattered country after World War II and the civil war that followed, the power sector in China was small, fragmented, and outdated. Total national capacity was only 1.85 gigawatts—a small fraction of the capacity of, for example, the state of California at the time. Over the next seven decades the country embarked on the greatest and fastest expansion of power generation the world has ever seen. Energy use per capita was far below the world average, to say nothing of developed countries like the United States; but it began to climb steadily in the 1980s, finally matching the world average around 2008. All of Asia Pacific accounted for only about 15 percent of total world energy consumption in 1971; by 2010 that figure had ballooned to 38 percent, driven mostly by growth in China. Total electricity use in China in 1980 was 250 terawatt- hours, only slightly more than the state of California. By 2010 that number had ballooned to nearly 4,000 terawatt-hours—almost as much as the entire United States consumed.

Most of that new power came from coal. During the eighth five-year plan, which ran from 1991 to 1995, total coal production in China grew by 40 million tons a year. Between 1997 and 2005, China added 206 gigawatts of power generation capacity, or 500 megawatts—the equivalent of a medium- sized coal-fired power plant—every week. These are official figures; the actual total is probably more, as illicit mines proliferated and many companies set up their own private coal boilers, off the national grid, to run factories and steel mills and cement plants.

By the turn of the 21st century, the central government had begun to realize that the country’s dependence on coal was a devil’s bargain. With annual production growing at nearly 10 percent a year, officials in Beijing began a program of closing small mines that managed to reduce production from just under 1.4 billion tons in 1996 to less than 1 billion in 2000. That proved to be a pause: the worldwide construction boom of the 2000s fueled a seemingly limitless expansion of coal. Coal production doubled from 2001 to 2004, reaching 2 billion tons; by 2009 it was 3 billion, still not enough. Imports climbed as well, and in 2007 China, for the first time, became a net importer of coal.

That same year, China surpassed the United States to become the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide.