31 january 2013

China's coal conundrum as smog worsens

By Martin Patience, BBC News, Datong, China, 31 January 2013

Locals in Datong call it the coal capital of China - and it is not hard to see why. Outside the city you can see enormous mining towers and buildings scarring the landscape.

At one coal pit the bulldozers are hard at work. They push huge mounds of coal close to the waiting trucks. The air is filthy, blackened by the coal dust.

This is a dirty, grimy business but in China it is crucial work. Coal has fuelled the country's economic boom, with consumption tripling in little over a decade.

Currently, China burns almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined. But that is leaving many cities, including Beijing, choking on hazardous smog.

Many people in the capital say the pollution this month has been the worst they can remember.

Hospitals have been over-run by both the young and old suffering from respiratory problems as pollution levels soared passed levels considered hazardous by the World Health Organisation.

One recent study, carried out by Greenpeace East Asia and Peking University's School of Public Health, estimated that air pollution had caused more than 8,000 premature deaths in four major Chinese cities last year.

'Too severe'

Coal accounts for two-thirds of China's energy supply and is the country's main source of pollution, as well as the millions of cars on the road.

But the smog it produces has led many to question the country's economic model.

A sustained effort to reduce China's dependence on heavy industry is now required, says Yang Fuqiang, a former government energy policy researcher and now a senior adviser at the Natural Resources Defence Council.

Beijing residents say severe smog is making their city unbearable "We have to change our ways. The pollution caused by coal is simply too severe," he said. "If nothing happens then the public outcry in the cities will keep growing.

"The government needs to restrict the use of coal and develop cleaner and more efficient technology."

In Beijing the authorities have shut down some factories and taken cars off the roads to try to reduce the pollution. People are being warned to close their windows. Sales of air purifiers and facemasks have rocketed and in some shops have simply run out.

In the long-term China is also investing heavily in hydro-electrical power and another renewable energies. It is considered a world leader in green technologies.

But with demand for energy growing year on year, consumption of coal continues to increase.


On Thursday, state-run news agency Xinhua reported that the authorities have now set a target designed to curb the growing consumption of energy, and coal in particular.

But any efforts to cap consumption will run into stiff resistance from local governments, which fear restrictions on economic growth.

Many people in the cities, however, want the authorities to take tough measures in order to improve their quality of life. But in the shadow of the coal mines in Datong there are different expectations.

Xu Youwang likes the benefits economic growth has brought
Xu Youwang has been a farmer all his life. The 56-year-old says he can remember a day when all he owned were sheep. He and his neighbours all live in mud-brick houses.

But now he has a washing machine, a TV - and big dreams. "If I had the money I'd buy a car, an apartment, a fridge and a computer," he said.

Farmer Xu expects his life to only get better. And that is the challenge for China's leaders - balancing the aspirations of people like him with more sustainable economic growth

For now, at least, the country's reliance on coal and the pollution that comes with it shows little sign of ending.

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