You really can see it from space!

No, not the Great Wall – China’s other gift to the world:

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.

Is this a turning point? Everyone’s said the ongoing rape of the environment and introduction of a mind-boggling array of toxins into China’s air and water simply cannot go on forever. There has to come a point where it simply cannot be tolerated any longer, as it literally threatens the lives of millions of Chinese citizens.

Based on historical trends, I’ll guess it’s too early for a significant turning point, but that it’s at least the start of the awakening that will ultimately result in dramatic changes. Sadly, these turning points tend not to come until there’s been a major calamity causing huge loss of life, like Hurrican Katrina or the Chernobyl explosion/contamination or the Bhopal catastrophe. The Army Corps of Engineers had warned us for years about the New Orleans levees, but it took Katrina to push the government to action. And I’d put global warming in the same category: People are finally getting it, but government won’t do much until it witnesses a horrifying calamity that will make further inaction impossible. Let’s hope China isn’t as careless about this nightmare as other nations have been about theirs.

The Discussion: 13 Comments

Why, it sounds like a free-enterprise Republican dream! Except for that pesky peasant revolt thing. Someone should give Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma a ticket to see it! Make it one-way, please.

January 1, 2007 @ 12:54 pm | Comment

Army Corps of Engineers’ construction of substandard levees and floodwalls was in large part the reason things turned out so badly in NO. They have since released a half-assed apology.

By the way, nice hat Richard. Hope you don’t catch hell from the PETAns.

January 1, 2007 @ 2:24 pm | Comment

Well, then the Army Engineers were criticizing their own work – they had listed the levees as one of the greatest potential dangers to the country that required attention, but no one listened.

The hat is real rabit fur. Yeah, I hope PETA doesn’t decide to spray-paint me.

January 1, 2007 @ 2:37 pm | Comment

I found the comments that the people interviewed didn’t want pollution to pay for growth most interesting – the usual spin is that they want growth no matter what. However I’m not surprised by comments that officials want it whatever. After all they’re getting fat from bribes, etc.

Once again I have to ask how the CCP can claim sole authority over China when it can’t even keep its own house in order.

January 1, 2007 @ 9:49 pm | Comment

Ain’t nobody gonna stop China from using its coal, so we all need to focus on making sure it cleans it as much as possible. I am constantly screaming about the opportunities for environmental companies to work with China on coal technology.

January 1, 2007 @ 10:54 pm | Comment

CLB, environmental companies have attempted to sell technologies to chinese companies only to find the broken record known as IP violations keeps playing. Not long after environmental technology exhibitions open up in SH and BJ and the big foreign companies flocked in, you could find chinese companies selling baghouse, computer controlled combustion and water filtration technologies being sold. Of course further inspection showed that these chinese produced technologies barely cleaned anything, many times the product was a box full of pipes and some automobile air filters.

And companies that did install western enviro technology just ended up bypassing the systems because they didn’t want to pay for a skilled technician or for materials to maintain the systems.

January 2, 2007 @ 5:35 am | Comment

nanheyangrouchuan has it right. Technology to clean up China’s power stations has been available for years, but too frequently the companies are either to cheap to buy the stuff or actually run it when they have it!

The problem is the lack of enforcement from government. It’s incompetancy, mixed with an unhealthy dose of wanting to keep bad news hidden, so official get away with it.

January 2, 2007 @ 6:18 am | Comment

Maybe someone just needs to light the Yangtze River on fire. Remember that America used to look just like China did and look at us today. Of course it took 40 years of fires on the Cuyahoga River for the US to do anything about air and water pollution, but at least we know it is doable.

January 2, 2007 @ 2:35 pm | Comment

America had a few fiery lakes. But our pollution was never anything like China’s. We didn’t have millions at risk of horrible deaths caused by corrupt bureaucrats on the take who failed to uphold environmental protection. Certainly we did have crimes committed, as in the Erin Brockavich story, but the free media and rule of law helped reap justice, punish the wrongdoers and stop the abuse. An imperfect system, I know, but it works way better than China’s, and any such parallels are simplistic and unrealistic. Repeat: the pollution on the US is not in the same vein as in China. I can drink the tap water in most US citie. Can you do that anywhere in China?

January 2, 2007 @ 3:25 pm | Comment

“the Army Engineers were criticizing their own work. . .no one listened”

Richly ironic, that. Harry Shearer has been all over the Corps, here’s one of his latest

It is beside the point to compare pollution in China today with that in the US, Japan, and Europe in the past. China could have chosen to benefit from what has been learned about pollution controls, and as nanheyangrouchuan points out, there were/are alternatives. The fairness issue- “you got to do it, now don’t criticize us” – is based on a false premise.

January 2, 2007 @ 5:09 pm | Comment

Actually, quite a few of the superfund sites in the US aren’t as “cleaned up” as they are “contained”.

The actual cleanup of the US and Europe is more attributable to the heavy fines and jail sentences, as well as public humiliation, of polluting companies and individuals (such as midnight dumpers). All of the technology and money in the world simply means you are following someone with a shovel trying to pick up whatever they throw away. Using the law means they are punished for polluting in the first place.

January 2, 2007 @ 9:35 pm | Comment

I think Datong is a shining example of why Chinese growth is unsustainable. When I visited Datong a few years ago, I couldn’t believe that people were actually living there. I encourage everyone to go have a look for themselves, but remember to bring a gasmask. I’m not kidding at all, bring a gasmask.. It’s just like Richard said, America has it’s pollution issues but they are nothing compared to this disaster. Raj is right, the technology is there but what incentive does anyone have to use it? I’d like to be as optimistic as China Law Blog, but I just don’t see anything changing soon.

January 3, 2007 @ 9:33 am | Comment

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