Coal far costlier than thought

Antoaneta Bezlova

Often criticised for its massive coal-based industries that jeopardise international efforts to combat global warming, China is undoubtedly the biggest victim of its voracious coal consumption. Last year, the country’s overwhelming reliance on polluting coal carried a price tag of 250 billion US dollars, according to a green lobby of environmentalists and economists.

Even more significantly, they calculate the hidden cost of environmental and social damage caused by China’s coal mining industry to be seven per cent of the country’s 2007 gross domestic product.

Perceived as an affordable fuel found in abundant quantities throughout the country, coal is responsible for a litany of ills such as polluted air, contaminated land and water, and thousands of deaths, said a study released in Beijing this week. If the so-called external, or hidden costs, were added to current coal tariffs, prices would rise by 23 per cent, ‘The True Cost of Coal’ predicted.

Commissioned by Greenpeace, the US-based Energy Foundation and WWF, the study was researched by Chinese economists for over two years. They sought help from experts in the country’s biggest coal producing region — Shanxi province — and from the national Centre for Disease Control.

The sheer scale of China’s recent and planned power-plant construction has prompted environmentalists to question the viability of any future international framework to combat climate change if China is not part of it. China relies on coal for 72 per cent of its primary energy consumption, compared with a global average of around 30 per cent. Coal is the biggest single source of air pollution across the country, responsible for 80 per cent of its carbon dioxide emissions. Scientists agree that CO2 is a major catalyst for global climate change. Its enormous emissions in China are blamed for making the country the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Experts estimated that if all of China’s planned coal-fired power capacity comes on line, the resulting increase in carbon dioxide emissions could exceed the Kyoto Protocol’s CO2 reduction targets by a factor of five.

This week, a senior Chinese climate official specifically suggested that richer countries should set aside one per cent of their gross domestic product to help poorer nations fight global warming. But even if China wants the developed world to shoulder the historic burden of reducing carbon dioxide emissions responsible for climate change, the uncomfortable truth remains that its people are most exposed to the effects of what Mao termed an “excessive use of coal”.

Inhaling soot particles from coal-fired power plants is causing an epidemic of chronic respiratory diseases among Chinese. Without providing exact figures, the study estimated that the death rate per one million tonnes of coal produced and consumed in China was 70 times higher than in the US, and seven times higher than in Russia and India.

Yang Ailun, Greenpeace climate and energy campaign manager who helped coordinate the study, saw the bright side. “Recognising the true cost of coal would create incentives to develop cleaner and more sustainable energy sources,” she said. “This would reduce China’s environmental pollution and show its leadership in fighting climate change.”