The Coal Monster: Pollution Forces Chinese Leaders to Act


Deng's principle, which helped the country advance to become the world's second-largest economy, still pretty much applies today: growth at all costs. The provinces are so conditioned to constantly report new record figures to Beijing that a colossal discrepancy emerged last June. According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, the country's carbon dioxide emissions amounted to 7.7 billion metric tons in 2010. But when researchers from the University of Leeds added together the figures reported by the provinces, they arrived at 9.1 billion tons. It still isn't clear which of the two figures is correct, but the difference alone is more than twice Germany's annual CO2 emissions.

A Massive Environmental Nightmare

The world may be wringing its hands, and it may be dawning on the leadership in polluted Beijing that it's time to change things. But, every day, the black monster out in the country's coal belt eats its way more deeply into a landscape that, in Inner Mongolia, already looks like the surface of the moon.

Bao Que, 27, drives his 40-ton truck back and forth between the Hainan opencast mines and the Xilaifeng coking plant eight to 10 times a day. It's a torture for him, his truck and the world around him, which stinks of sulfur and ammonia. "I've been doing this for two years," he says. "My contract runs out in a year and, by that time, the truck will be worn out. Besides, no one can stand it here any longer than that."

Excavators dig into the dusty heaps piled up along the edge of the kilometer-wide coal crater. Then they fill Bao's truck. The excavator operator is still pressing down the load by slapping it with a shovel as Bao starts to pull a tarp across his dump truck. In this business, every minute and every ton counts.

The trucks have dug thigh-high grooves into the earth. Another truck overturned while Bao was in the mine. The load, 45 tons of gravel, fell to one side while the fuel, 150 liters of diesel, leaked out on the other side, where it joined the bilious green brake fluid and seeped into the earth. "It was his own fault," says Bao. "The truck was three times overloaded. Mine? No more than twice."

There are probably few places on earth where nature is abused quite as much as it is in the northern Chinese coalfields. China covers 70 percent of its energy needs with coal, consuming about as much as all other countries combined. When there is a clear view, it's possible to make out the Yellow River while flying over Inner Mongolia -- a waterway that has been reduced to a trickle after being tapped by dozens of mines, power plants and factories for cement and chemicals. In a report entitled "Thirsty Coal," the environment organization Greenpeace warned of water scarcity and an environmental disaster along the course of the Yellow River.

A comparison between the opulent marble building that houses the state-owned Shenhua Group in Yinchuan and the environmental agency's office in a run-down neighborhood of Wuhai, 150 kilometers away, is all it takes to know who is going to determine what happens on the upper reaches of the Yellow River for the foreseeable future.

"Our base has access to a surplus of fresh water," Shenhua, the world's largest coal company, claims on its website. The group employs 211,000 people and operates 62 mines and power plants with a total capacity of almost 43 gigawatts.

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