China’s coal dependency – 30th of October

I found an interesting article in Scientific American, which is a part of a book written by Jonathan Watts  – When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind–or Destroy It.

The article describes a gut wrenching experience of two brothers – coal miners in China that were buried alive in an illegal coal mine, yet they manage to live the experience and tell its tale. The story of coal miners in China is not well known and you might end up reading only the good ending stories (such as this one), but coal miners in China suffer from harsh working conditions and risk their lives on a daily basis: it is stated that 170,000 coal miners in China were killed in tunnel collapses, which is 30 times higher then in the US.

The article also deals with China’s dependency in coal energy as it is responsible for nearly 70 percent of the China’s energy consumption. The problem with this dependency is that it has much more environmental adverse effects then most other energy substances. Coal energy produces roughly 80 percent more carbon dioxide compare to natural gas, and 20 per cent compare to crude oil emissions. Some of these effects include: acid rain, water contamination lung diseases and the coal dark dust settling on near by villages located adjacent to the coal mines. Not to mention the effect of greenhouse emissions gases, that China just recently claimed the title from the US as the biggest greenhouse emission producer worldwide.

There is also the problem in China where coal is being dug up – the Southeast region, which is responsible mainly responsible for providing energy solution to China’s major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. This region suffers from the above mentioned adverse environmental effects more then the cities that rely on coal energy.

In economic theory there is a well known section dedicated for the effects of external effects on economic activities such as pollution cause by a certain factory’s production; one way of dealing with the pollution is making the polluting factory internalize its external effects by paying society for the pollution it produces. This “solution” is possible if there are no long term adverse effects and if no one gets hurt, but in China’s case the pollution caused by extracting coal on the adjacent cities and villages is way too harsh for just “paying for the damage”.  In China’s case the article claims that the environmental and social cost for producing coal is estimated at nearly 7.1% of China’s GDP as of 2007. I think it’s safe to claim that this figure only grew higher today and is still underestimating the real cost, which some of it is hard or impossible to calculate (e.g. what is the price of polluting landscapes, or can you price the adverse effects of quality of life of people living near these coal mines).

That is why it’s good to read that at least China is taking a more active action towards “clean coal”, despite the adverse effect it creates by jacking up the price of coal in China (you can’t have it all…). China’s main actions, according to the article, include: “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, maximizes efficiency and can capture carbon. In the future,…[it is] predicted plants will be able to turn coal into gas and diesel, capturing and eventually sequestrating carbon dioxide emissions” (from the article).

We will need to keep close tabs on China’s progress and see how the introduction of such technology will affect its adverse effects on the environment.