ON AN AVERAGE DAY IN CHINA more than 6 million tons of coal are produced, far more than in the United States (3.2 million tons a day), Europe, and Russia combined. This production is essential to China’s economic rise, providing almost 70% of the nation’s energy.
And demand is only going to increase. The industrial demand for energy continues to grow as does residential and other needs. China is adding two 500 megawatt coal-fired power plants every week. In 2004 alone, China built coal-fired plants equal to California’s total power generation capacity.
Expanding coal production and consumption has improved incomes and living standards for hundreds of millions of Chinese. These gains have come at great cost as coal mine safety has been lax, especially in small remote mines. Thousands die each year in explosions, cave-ins, and other disasters. Beyond this, the overwhelming majority of coal-fired power plants do not use advanced scrubbing technologies and emit enormous amounts of sulfur, carbon dioxide, and other pollutants. This pollution is damaging the air, water, and soil and is causing hundreds of thousands of early deaths.
Because China’s energy needs are large and growing, the country has little choice but to continue to mine and burn coal. The Chinese government has mandated that all new plants will employ scrubbers and other technologies and that all existing plants are to be retrofitted by 2010. In addition, Chinese energy efficiency (the amount of energy used to produce electricity, etc.) lags far behind European, Japanese, and American rates. Chinese leaders promist to address this. Earlier pledges, however, have not been kept. For example, in 2002 it decreed that sulfur output would be reduced by 10%. It’s since risen by 27%.
In 2006, China announced that it intended to join the U.S. on the FutureGen project, an effort to build an emissions-free power plant by 2010.
Jonathan Ansfield, “The Coal Trap; Beijing battles for control of a runaway industry that both powers China, and threatens its future,” Newsweek, Jan. 15, 2007.
Keith Bradsher and David Barboza, “Pollution From Chinese Coal Casts Shadow Around Globe,” New York Times, June 11, 2006.
“Nation ready to join US Futuregen power project,” China Daily, Oct. 19, 2006.
“Dirty king coal: Scrubbing carbon from coal-fired power stations is possible but pricey,” The Economist, June 2, 2007.