[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 March, 2005, 13:12 GMT
A coal-dependent future?
Susan Watts, Science Correspondent
By Susan Watts
BBC Newsnight, science editor

With a rare glimpse inside one of China's working coalmines, Newsnight's science editor, Susan Watts, has been to find out if a coal-dependent future for China is inevitable.

Coal built China - and fuels its relentless growth today. Eighty per cent of China's electricity comes from coal, and there are plans for 544 new coal-fired power stations to meet an insatiable demand for energy.

Yet coal is a prime source of carbon dioxide - the global warming gas. If the power plants go ahead, it will be all but impossible to avoid dangerous climate change.

Market forces

Traffic jams were unheard of in Beijing just a few years ago. Now, one in four families in China owns a car. Since China let in market forces, its politicians know they must keep delivering economic prosperity to stay in power.

The whole city hopes to get rich when the Olympics come to Beijing in three years' time.

Traffic jam in Beijing
Traffic jams in Beijing were unheard of a few years ago
China wants to be seen as a vibrant, go-ahead nation. It's tearing down the Hutong courtyard homes of Beijing's poorest, eager to banish their "Dickensian" alleyways.

In their place come modern flats and all the energy-guzzling domestic appliances that go in them.

Over the past two decades, China has put economic growth above all else, and with 200 million Chinese still living on less than a dollar a day, relieving poverty remains vital.

Coal offers the way out. Nearly 80% of the country's electricity comes from coal. That's twice the average, worldwide. And for the time being, as the demand for power grows, this means one thing - more emissions of climate-changing gases.

Clear choices

For the Chinese government's advisers the choices are clear.

"My understanding of the Chinese government's point of view and ordinary people's point of view is that you have to prioritise," Pan Juihua, executive director at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told us.

When you have many problems you have to prioritise.
Pan Juihua, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
"When you have many choices you have to consider the constraints, when you have many problems you have to prioritise. When you have poverty you have to tackle poverty first."

Supplying that energy comes at a cost. On the day we arrived in China, 214 miners lost their lives in a gas explosion. The safety figures suggest corners are being cut to maximise supply.

Officially, 6,000 were killed in China's coal mines just last year - that's 20 a day.

Methane explosions are the main culprit. But it's not just a safety hazard - methane's also a greenhouse gas, 20 times as damaging as carbon dioxide.

A miner at work
6,000 were killed in China's coal mines just last year
Most of the accidents happen in China's small, private mines where high production figures count for more than people's lives.

The skeletal structures over the mine shafts mark each site of underground toil, dotted across the landscape as we drove through China's coal-rich Shanxi province. Jumpy local officials prevented us from filming here, such was their anxiety over what we might see.

At our destination - a state-run coal mine in northern China - they say they've had no deaths since they started up three years ago. The mine supports a massive community of 3,000 miners, and their families.

Role model

The Sihe mine is being held up as a role model. It's one of China's largest and most modern coal mines, expected to produce 10 million tonnes of coal before the year's out.

The development of coal is the basis of the development of the country
Wen Shihua
It's the first mine in China to tackle greenhouse gas emissions by capturing the methane released from the earth as the coal is mined.

Before, the methane was sent straight into the atmosphere. Now, it's diverted into a small gas-fired power station.

The scheme generates paper credits that the mine group has sold to the World Bank, for $20m. As well as the extra money, the scheme should make the mine safer - with less methane around.

It's a small first step to making coal less damaging to the environment.

A miner descends
The Sihe mine is being held up as a role model
The head of the mining group, Wen Shihua, wants others to take a bigger share of the task of cleaning up the planet.

"We are a country with a lot of coal, very little oil and very little gas. The development of coal is the basis of the development of the country.

"There is no way that we can replace our production of coal or use alternative sources of energy to totally replace it. Because the US and some Western governments don't abide by the Kyoto Protocol, they are not willing to reduce their carbon emissions... we feel very annoyed about that."

Perpetual fires

But the scale of China's own entangled history with coal is overwhelming. Right across northern China, coal seams burn in un-stoppable fires.

Some have been burning naturally for thousands of years, but others are being set alight by small-scale mining operations seeking to cash in on soaring coal prices. Together, these perpetual fires are letting off a total amount of carbon dioxide each year equal to all the cars in the USA.

Desertification causes a reduction in our natural resources"
Yang Weixi, National Bureau to Combat Desertification
It's in China's interests to limit its climate-changing emissions from coal because the effects are already being felt.

Central Asia is drying out, partly as a result of global warming - and it's going to get worse.

Deserts make up a quarter of China's land - mostly in the north, and they're growing. After decades of over-grazing and poor use of land, infertile soil and erosion are the result - and the blinding red sandstorms that plague Beijing.

Climate scientists say China's northern deserts are growing at an alarming rate, by several thousands square kilometres every year.

Yang Weixi, chief engineer at China's National Bureau to Combat Desertification, explained. "Desertification causes a reduction in our natural resources and it destroys our quality of life. People's living space is ever decreasing. It affects farming, crop production and transport. It affects people's lives."

Feeding destruction

The effects of climate change could prove devastating for China's cities, too. Shanghai, like the rest of China's eastern coastal cities, is built on a river delta.

It's desperately vulnerable to flood. The bigger the city gets, the more energy it consumes, feeding its own destruction by making sea-level rise due to global warming all the more likely.

We're assuming that in the next 50 years the sea level here might be 50cm higher
Professor Chen Zhongyuan
"We're assuming that in the next 50 years the sea level here might be 50cm higher than the present sea level," Professor Chen Zhongyuan, of East China Normal University, told us.

"That is a huge concern for the people living here. We have 16 to 17 million people living here so we need fresh water. If fresh water is affected by a salt water invasion, then the whole city is collapsing. Shanghai is getting more and more important for international trade, so we want to protect it..."

In fact, the latest estimates suggest the impact of sea-level rise on Shanghai itself could be far worse. The sea-level rises officials are expecting could hit in just 20 years, not 50.

Need for change

Fundamental change is what's needed. China's coal-based economy is entrenched, and there are plans for another 500 coal-burning power stations.

What China does now will decide how much damage it causes the world's atmosphere. If it builds these coal-fired power stations it will push carbon dioxide concentrations right up to the 400 parts per million level at which scientists expect dangerous climate change.

Zhou Dadi, of Beijing's Energy Research Institute, told us: "We need a new model of development that means high-level living standards with lower emissions per capita. If we can find such a model, China will follow that."

He wants Western governments to offer technology partnerships that are not just about making a fast buck in the new China. His country needs technical solutions that allow it to burn coal without destroying the planet.

Coal dependency
Watch Susan Watts' story on China's coal mining

Building the well-off society
07 Mar 05 |  Newsnight


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific