A GREAT coal rush is under way across China on a scale not seen anywhere since the 19th century.
Its consequences have been detected half a world away in toxic clouds so big that they can seen from space, drifting across the Pacific to California laden with microscopic particles of chemicals that cause cancer and diseases of the heart and lung.
Nonetheless, the Chinese plan to build no fewer than 500 new coal-fired power stations, adding to some 2,000, most of them unmodernised, that spew smoke, carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere.
It is the political fallout of that decision that is likely to challenge the foundations on which Britain and other developed nations have built their climate change policy — even as there are signs that ordinary Chinese citizens are at last rebelling against lives spent in poisonous conditions.
Cloaked in swirling mists of soot particles and smoke, cities such as China’s “coal capital” of Datong are entering the coldest period of winter in which demand for power and heating produces the worst pollution.
It is often darkness at noon in Datong, just 160 miles west of Beijing, where vehicles drive in daytime with their headlights on to grope through the miasma.
One of the four filthiest towns in China, it stands at the heart of the nation’s coal belt in Shanxi province, a region that mines more coal every year than Britain, Russia and Germany combined.
Cancer rates are soaring, child health is a time bomb and the population, many of whom are heavy cigarette smokers, are paying the price for China’s breakneck rush to riches and industrialisation — an estimated 400,000 premature deaths nationwide because of pollution every year.
Now, for the first time, the Chinese media have reported a revolt among the choking citizens of Shanxi. More than 90% of people surveyed by the provincial bureau for environmental protection said economic growth cannot go on at such an appalling cost.
That puts them on a collision course with their rulers — the same survey, reported by the China Youth Daily, found that 90% of mayors and local cadres opposed any moves to protect the environment that might slow the economy.
It is not hard to find the reason why. One mine boss in Shanxi named Zhang owns three Rolls-Royces of different colours plus a fleet of other luxury cars for his extended family, according to the Chongqing Morning Post, a daily newspaper.
“While normal people die of polluted air and water, officials use mineral water to wash their vegetables and even their feet,” said Yue Jianguo, an analyst, commenting on the Shanxi survey.
“People can’t tolerate the pollution any longer but officials only care about their political achievements of hitting targets for growth. If this policy isn’t stopped, China will become a land where there are only graves, no people.”
Coal is king in China. The nation’s hunger for energy appears insatiable. Oil, costing more than $60 (£31) a barrel, is too expensive. Nuclear power is a distant option. Giant hydroelectric projects, such as the Three Gorges Dam, generate a mere fraction of the demand. Wind power and other alternative technologies make a minimum impact.
So China is digging furiously and fast in more than 21,000 mines. Last Wednesday Zeng Peiyan, a vice- premier, disclosed that coal output had doubled in the past five years. The nation will use 2.5 billion tons in 2007.