Coal ash

When it comes to charting China's growing rural-urban divide, can there be any greater yardstick than pollution? In a country beset by environmental problems, we are now finding that as development levels surge ahead in second and top tier cities, their countryside counterparts lag behind and carry a greater burden of the environmental damage. So much pollution is now being either generated in the countryside – or exported out to – that those living in China's urban power centers can barely relate.

But there's one problem that touches every single life in China: coal. It's the one pollution to rule them all. From the lowliest of rural workers, to the country's most powerful political elite, the environmental fallout from coal is so complicated and far-reaching that there's simply no escaping it.

That said, coal pollution and pollution from coal production affects different parts of the country in different ways. Coal mining in China is mostly concentrated in the country's northern regions, a “coal belt” that stretches from Heilongjiang, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia to Xinjiang, along with a couple of spots in Sichuan and Guizhou. The honeycomb of tunnels that make up these pit mines have turned the earth into cottage cheese, sometimes with whole villages collapsing. Not to mention polluted waste leeching into the ground and surrounding water systems.

From these Northwestern regions the coal then clocks up thousands of kilometers traversing China's web of highways to reach the coal production factories dotted across the countries. The logistical nightmare involved in having millions of coal-filled trucks and trains hurtling across the country each year have seen the government show signs they want to move coal power plants (which turn coal into electricity) to the same areas as mining, as detailed in the 12th five year plan.

While mining remains by far the most water intensive chain in the link, coal production too is sucking up the water that was once destined for China's farmlands. It's a problem that has been compounded by climate change, deforestation and agricultural and industrial pollution – including waste water from coal production. This leads to one, incontrovertible fact: there simply isn't enough water to go around. A 2010 report by the Ministry of the Environmental Protection (MEP) named 30 percent of China's water as failing to meet national standards, with other experts calling this a conservative estimate, claiming 50 percent as a more accurate figure.

The lack of clean water is forcing farmers to drill deeper and deeper in order to reach groundwater. Meanwhile, herders take their cattle to graze in plots that have turned into giant dustbowls, both of which is putting strains on China's food supply. Desertification is particularly severe in the Northwest "coal belt" where the winds pick up dust – coal ash, a waste byproduct – and sends it all over the country. Every four tons of coal burned produces one ton of coal ash. And each year, Beijing is attacked by these notorious dust storms.

"Sandstorms can actually be called 'coal dust storms'," says current Greenpeace Climate and Energy Campaigner Sun Qingwei, previously a government scientist based in the western province of Gansu.

"Coal ash is a very tiny and light particle, easily picked up by wind. Winds traveling at eight meters per second can already disperse coal ash up to 150,000 square kilometers from their origins in open-air dumping sites. Winds in a sandstorm are very strong, with speeds of at least 25 meters per second – thus they can spread coal ash very far. This means that even people who live far from thermal power plants in eastern and southern China must face the threat of coal pollution at their doorstep."

Is it any surprise that air pollution has been the hot topic when it comes to environmental issues that gripped the country? And the issue in which this year we saw definitive action from the government? This is the one pollution that cannot be swept under the rug. It drifts through rural-urban boundaries, affecting the richest of CEOs and most powerful political elites who are forced to every day breathe in the smoggy air of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Coal burning releases pollutants like sulphur dioxide, which leads to the acidification of watersheds. Together with the other bad guy, nitrogen oxide, these pollutants can turn into PM2.5 particles, which are also directly produced by the burning of coal. The danger of PM2.5 – particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers – is that they are small enough to enter the lungs and the bloodstream and thus into other organs. High levels of PM2.5 have been linked to increased incidence of heart disease, heart attacks, asthma and other cardiovascular issues.

Late last year, the government finally announced a decision to begin publishing PM2.5 particulate matter in air pollution measurements, a vital move that had been long awaited by citizens and environmentalists alike, urgently wanting to deal with the nation's severe air pollution problems. At the time, the official Xinhua news agency said of the news, "A stirring campaign on the country's social network websites since last autumn seemed to have gained a satisfying response from the country's policymakers."

But the most dangerous pollutant to be released from coal is CO2. China is now the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases and even on a per capita count equals some developed countries, such as Italy and France. Carbon emissions is the main contributor to climate change – which we're already seeing impact China's rural poor – as well as many parts of the rest of the world.

While there have been some signs from the government of a desire to reduce the nation's output and consumption of coal, there remain a number of hurdles before we ever see a coal-free China. In the 12th five year plan the central government set a purely indicative limit to coal use of 3.9 billion tons by 2015. However, coal use is increasing so fast that country might be using more than this already this year.

"Fact is that if we want to curb the country's increase of coal we're going to need coal caps on key provinces. This is the only way for China to meet its targets on climate and also ease the local pollution and environmental damage from coal," said Sun.

Image: A coal ash disposal site in China © Zhao Gang / Greenpeace