Coal has proved to be a boon for humans: to this day, it is still used to produce an enormous quantity of energy across the world, which can be used to power anything, from a light bulb to a hospital. Unfortunately, exploiting its potential also kills people, as a recent study by Tsinghua University and the Ministry of Environmental Protection shows.
Xinhua reported that according to Teng Fei, a Tsinghua professor who worked on the project, “The global burden of disease report in 2012 shows that the outdoor pollution is the 4th leading cause of death in China. And this research shows that coal and coal-related industries are responsible for 50-60 percent of the density of PM2.5, the main pollutant in the air.”
In 2012, 670,000 people died across the country because of issues which are related to the exploitation of coal. That is not only a tragedy, it is also expensive. Professor Teng told the South China Morning Post that damaging the people’s health and the environment comes at a cost of about 260 yuan (over $40) for each ton produced and used. “With existing environmental fees and taxes of between 30 to 50 yuan [roughly $5 to $8.5] for each ton of coal,” the professor argued, “The country’s current pricing system has largely failed to reflect the true costs.”
A major issue connected to the extraction of coal is water scarcity. This is even more the case because coal and water resources in China are “inversely distributed,” which means that areas that are rich in coal are poor in terms of water. “Ningxia and Xinjiang provinces are the most deficient as water resources in those areas are less than 20 percent of the total amount in the country. However, in 2010 coal production there was as high as 1.9 billion tons, 60 percent of the total coal production in China,” Xinhua reported.
The People’s Republic, according to the US Energy Information Administration, accounts for 46 percent of global coal production and 49 percent of global coal consumption, “almost as much as the rest of the world combined.” The World Coal Association – which describes itself as a global industry association of coal producers and stakeholders – pointed out that in 2013 China produced 3561 Mt of coal, almost four times what the United States did.
Greenpeace, for its part, argued that “In 2013, coal accounted for 65 percent of China’s overall energy consumption, making it the most coal-dependent country among top energy consumers,” wrote the agency. “In 2010 alone, China’s increase in coal-fired power generation capacity equaled Germany’s existing generating capacity.”
Problems linked to the environment loom large over the public’s perception of the country’s development. A recent research by Hurun Report, a Chinese publication, shows that one of the most common reasons why the new rich are emigrating in large numbers is pollution. But you do not really need statistics to feel that concerns abound: a look to Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, would be enough to confirm that people are increasingly worried about the consequences of high concentrations of PM 2.5 in the air and food contamination, just to name two of the most common issues.
Some good news appeared last month, as the country inverted a long-lasting trend: in the first three quarters of 2014, China burned less carbon than it had done the previous year. Greenpeace, quoting Chinese media sources, wrote that “The latest data showed that even as power consumption grew by 4 percent (based on government data) coal demand for power generation actually fell by 1 percent.” According to the organization, “The world’s largest economy is finally starting to radically slow down its emission growth, and it comes ahead of key talks next year on a new global climate and energy deal.” Hopefully so, as the world’s largest economy has just lost over 600,000 of its citizens to burning coal.