In the years after Mao Zedong's death in 1976, China opened up its economy to reflect a more market-based model for economic development. Out was the Soviet-style collectivized agriculture, replaced instead by privatized farms. Price controls were relaxed, authority was localized and foreign investment was encouraged. In the years since, China's economy, as measured by gross domestic product, has grown by 10 percent a year, on average.
In China, more than any other country, that economic growth has been fueled by coal. Seventy percent of the country's electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, which is twice the worldwide average. China consumed about 2.2 billion metric tons of coal last year, one-third of the world's total and more than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. And with broad industrialization taking place, China's coal consumption is increasing -- by 14 percent in each of the last two years.
Seventy percent of China's electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, which is twice the worldwide average.
The reliance on coal is a double-edged sword for the country: The relatively cheap energy drives the economic boom, but the growing safety and environmental concerns are becoming increasingly dire with the ongoing demand for more energy.
The coal industry employs an estimated 3 million people in China and features approximately 30,000 mines countrywide. In the race to collect enough coal to keep up with demand, regulations of the mines are routinely overlooked. By the government's estimate, almost one-fifth of the mines are illegal and, thus, operate outside regulations. Over the past five years, an average of 6,000 people a year have died in mine accidents throughout China. The United States, by comparison, had 47 deaths due to mine accidents in 2006 while unearthing about half as much coal. And in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, Human Rights Watch observers said that deaths in Chinese mines account for more than 80 percent of mining deaths worldwide.
While the physical risk to miners is significant, the health risk to surrounding communities could be greater. The sulfur dioxide produced in coal combustion is believed to contribute to about 400,000 deaths in China a year. It also causes acid rain, which poisons rivers, lakes, forests and farmland.
In the Shanxi province, located in the center of the country and considered the heart of China's coal belt, residents report high rates of bronchitis, pneumonia and lung cancer.
In the Shanxi province, located in the center of the country and considered the heart of China's coal belt, residents report high rates of bronchitis, pneumonia and lung cancer. Described by reporters for The New York Times as "Dickensian" because residents walk around with coal-smeared faces and buildings are coated in soot, the province is home to four of the country's 10 most polluted cities. In the winter months, when power plants burn the most coal, drivers keep their headlights on at all hours so they can see through the dark, polluted skies.
Burning coal for power also produces more greenhouse gas emissions than any other power source; yet, China has little choice but to use it. Local natural gas is in short supply and importing oil or liquefied natural gas is increasingly expensive. And because of China's status as a developing country, it is not bound by the restrictions of the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement designed to limit emissions of climate-changing gases. The International Energy Agency predicted last year that by 2009 China would overtake the United States as the largest emitter of carbon dioxide.
The Chinese government has begun to take steps in hopes of curbing the country's emissions, including strict fuel-efficiency standards in new vehicles and energy-efficient construction codes for new buildings. They are also requiring that smokestacks for all coal-fired power plants be fitted with devices to reduce up to 95 percent of sulfur emissions by 2010. And China has been seeking alternative energy solutions as well, including wind, solar and geothermal.
But for now, China continues to burn coal to power its growth. And with an economy that advances at 10 percent a year and coal as the primary power source, the new emissions standards will be unable to keep up.
Sources: BBC, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Times (London), Reuters and Human Rights Watch.
From Our Files
China: The New Wave
Reporter Joshua Fisher takes a cinematic journey to China where he meets with the country's new wave of independent filmmakers. Known as the "Sixth Generation," the group flouts censorship to tell gritty contemporary stories about the country's rapid modernization and the millions of migrants living at its margins.
China: The Women's Kingdom
Reporter Xiaoli Zhou visits "The Women's Kingdom" of the Mosuo people, one of the last matriarchal societies in the world. Her footage from southwest China lets viewers see how much freedom a woman might enjoy in China.
Reporter Serene Fang visits the remote Chinese province Xinjiang to investigate growing tensions between the government and the Muslim people known as the Uighurs. Her clandestine interview with a Uighur man turns into a reporter's nightmare when Chinese authorities arrest Fang and her source, confiscate her videotape, interrogate her for 24 hours and take the Uighur man to an unknown fate.
Washington Post: The Misery of China's Mines
In the wake of China's latest mine accident, miners and their families protest the working conditions and lack of government support for workers.
The New York Times: Pollution from Chinese Coal Casts a Global Shadow
Times reporters Keith Bradsher and David Barboza explore the effects of pollution caused by China's coal-fired power plants and the tough decisions China faces in reducing negative impact while still sustaining economic growth through the use of coal.
The Wall Street Journal: Illegal Power Plants, Coal Mines in China Pose Challenge in Beijing
The Wall Street Journal's Shai Oster examines the vast number of illegal power plants and coal mines operating in China and how the country's economic transformation is outpacing Beijing's ability to manage it.
BBC News: A Coal-Dependent Future?
Newsnight's science editor, Susan Watts, investigates the human and environmental costs as China's growing need for energy pushes the coal industry.
BBC News: Coal Blackens Outlook in China
BBC reporter Nils Blythe travels to Shanxi Province, China's main coal-producing region, to look at how the country is tackling global warming.
The New York Times: Killing Puts Focus on Corruption in Chinese Media
The killing of a journalist investigating illegal mines in China leads to an exploration of corrupt practices in the Chinese media, including accepting bribes to keep stories out of print.
Human Rights Watch: Take Tough Action to End China's Mining Tragedies
In an opinion piece printed in The Wall Street Journal, Human Rights Watch workers argue for greater governmental regulation of the mining industry in China.
China Environment Forum, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Since 1997, the China Environment Forum has been active in creating programming and publications to encourage dialogue among U.S. and Chinese scholars, policymakers, businesses and nongovernmental organizations on environmental and energy challenges in China.
-- Matthew Vree and Alison Satake