by Robert Callobridge
China’s economy has surged in the past decade, taking the world’s largest nation from the third world into the spotlight as the second-largest economy in the world. And while that surge may have taken its GDP to the silver medal, the country takes an easy gold in coal. But all of that coal use is turning the country’s largest cities into science fiction wastelands, where the air is so dirty fake sunsets have to be displayed in major squares because citizens can’t see the sky.
The US Environmental Protection Agency identifies coal as the energy resource with the highest pollution potential when burned. The rock, which is formed through millions of years as heat and pressure bombard decaying organic material, releases chemicals ranging from carbon dioxide to mercury compounds to methane – a gas that studies suggest is up to 26 times more potent as a greenhouse gas compared to CO2.
The countryChina uses over 3.3 billion short tons of coal each year – more than the next nine highest-using countries combined – while producing nearly 3.5 billion short tons. China produces 81% of its electricity from coal, a fact easily connected to the country’s stature as the world’s unchallenged leader in coal production and consumption.
With the surging energy demands of a blossoming urban population and a rapidly developing economy, however, come the consequences of unmitigated energy policies. By using the energy source most abundant in its borders in such staggering quantities, China is quickly becoming the dirtiest country on Earth.
In cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, smog is commonplace and routine. But during heat waves last fall, the pollution often hit more than 25 times the acceptable levels set by the World Health Organization, endangering not only the country’s tourism industry and harming its attractiveness to foreign businesses, but also seriously endangering the health of its citizens.
Last month, Xinhua, the Chinese state-run news agency, said the government was planning to invest nearly $290 billion in renewable energy sources to curb the pollution. Chinese President Xi Jinping has also released a statement in which he promised to counter the smog conditions, and strive to improve both the nation’s health and economy that has have suffered as a result of the dangerous smoke and environmental degradation the country faces.
Companies are capitalizing on the fear of the pollution’s effect on health. Shungfen Photovoltaic International, a Chinese-based renewable energy manufacturer that saw astronomical growth last year, announced plans to invest over $4 billion of its own money in developing an additional 10 gigawatts of solar production capability, company Chairman Zhang Yi announced in the midst of the smog epidemic, though that solar energy won’t be online until 2015. Until then, Chinese cities and citizens will have to find other ways of coping with the worst air qualities in the world.