Science, Tech & Environment

Thousands of deaths caused by China's coal energy

This story is a part of

Human Needs

This story is a part of

Human Needs

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(Image by Flickr user LHOON (cc: by))

This story was originally covered by PRI's The World. For more, listen to the audio above.

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China has enjoyed a breakneck pace of economic growth recently, but this newfound prosperity is fueled mostly by coal. The country relies on the dirty energy source to meet 70 percent of its energy needs, and it is now the largest producer and consumer of coal in the world. After seeing the benefits of unrivaled economic growth, China is now starting to see the drawbacks as well.

More than 1,600 people died last year from accidents in coalmines while trying to meet the ever-increasing energy needs of the country. The number has been reduced from 5,000 deaths five years ago, but it's still dangerously high compared to other countries around the world.

Coalmining has taken an ecological toll as well. The smog from burning coal has changed the local weather in China. A study out from Chinese atmospheric scientists has shown that the air pollution has affected rain patterns that are needed to keep agricultural soil moist for growing. This has led to a strong concern that smog from burning coal will affect harvests in the long run.

In the short run, all that pollution can be deadly. The World Bank estimates that there are more than 700,000 deaths each year from air pollution related illnesses. Not all of these are linked directly to coal, but there has been a large increase of people in the country suffering from lung cancer, even among people who don't smoke.

The coal burning has even increased deterioration of historical sites. In many tourist sites, tour guides have complained that the artifacts and sculptures have been irreparably harmed. It has also become more difficult to view important sights from a distance.

Despite all of its challenges, China has made progress with its coal consumption and production. There have been new efficiency standards put in place that didn't exist a few decades ago. The country now needs to determine how to balance the need for economic growth with the effects that coal has on their country.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.