Channel 4 News: China coal fires in spotlight
It's known for being the world's cheapest fuel, but Chinese coal is actually more expensive than ever: a new report estimates that the environmental and social costs of China's coal usage hit RMB1.7 trillion ($248 billion) last year, or about 7.1% of the country's GDP.
The other key numbers, according to the report, by Greenpeace, the Energy Foundation and WWF: coal is the source of 70% of the country’s energy, 85% of China’s sulphur dioxide emissions, 67% of its nitrogen dioxide emissions, 80% of its carbon dioxide emissions, and creates 25% of China's waste water. China's coal mines are the world's deadliest, killing an average of 13 miners a day. For some cough-worthy visual evidence, take a look at the city of Linfen.
But a less obvious threat smolders underground: at least 62 coal fires that destroy 20 million tons of coal annually, nearly equal to Germany's entire annual production. As Tim Johnson of McClatchy reports, scientists estimate that the fires alone may account for 2 to 3 percent of the world's annual emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. China is not the only place in the world with coal fires. India, Russia and Indonesia suffer from uncontrolled coal fires. In the 80s, the state of Pennsylvania spent some $42 million to relocate the residents of Centralia, a town that atop a fire that's been burning since 1966.
But China's got it worst. According to McClatchy newspapers:
China has the worst underground coal fires of any country on Earth. The fires destroy as much as 20 million tons of coal annually, nearly the equivalent of Germany's entire annual production. The costs go beyond the waste of a valuable fuel, however.
The rising demand for coal worldwide to satisfy a hunger for energy has given way to greater mining, and a proliferation of fires in coal seams and abandoned mines. China, which has tripled coal production in the past three decades, has mobilized thousands of firefighters to combat the 62 known coal fires that are scattered across its north.
Many coal fires begin spontaneously when underground seams come in contact with the air — either through fault lines from earthquakes or mining activity — generating a chemical reaction that can slowly heat and ignite the coal. Human activity is an intensifier of the fires, however, especially when workers abandon dust-filled mines without sealing the airshafts, allowing temperatures to build.
China's coal fires stretch across a northern belt that runs nearly 3,000 miles from east to west. A cluster of them are in Ningxia and a little to the north in Inner Mongolia at the edge of the Gobi Desert. The concentration of coal fires in the region puts it in the running for one of the world's worst ecological disasters, and only humans can extinguish the problem.
"These fires just don't go out," said Anupma Prakash, an expert on mapping coal fires at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.
Fighting coal fires -- an expensive proposition that involves injecting water into the burning coal and adding a mixture of sand, cement and chemicals -- is tackling a low-hanging fruit in the effort to stem climate change.
Moving away from coal, at least in China, will be harder as long as the government sees coal as its most dependable and cheapest energy source.
"(The) coal-dominated energy mix cannot be substantially changed in the near future, thus making the control of greenhouse gas emissions rather difficult," a recent government white paper said.
The tone was of some regret however.
"Extreme climate phenomena, such as high temperatures, heavy precipitation and severe droughts, have increased in frequency and intensity," the government report noted. These phenomena, it said, will increase natural disasters, reduce grain yields and impact livestock raising, hampering the nation's efforts to feed its 1.3 billion people.
Fortunately, as Green Leap Forward notes, the government is raising coal prices, bringing them closer to market levels in certain cases. But the aforementioned Greenpeace report on coal notes that the true cost of coal in China is some 23 percent higher than its current prices. Setting the price of coal that high would probably stoke some other fires in the short term, but probably not ones that melt away our climate.