RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And China, as we are about to hear, is now overtaking the West in its use of coal to power its own Industrial Revolution.
LOUISA LIM: This is Louisa Lim, and I'm in a wicked cage, descending 1,000 feet down into the bowels of a Chinese coalmine. Here, coal is powering the country's amazing economic rise. Seventy percent of China's energy comes from this cheap yet dirty source of power. And as we zoom down this mineshaft, we're accompanied by the miners who are literally toiling at the rock face to fuel their country's economic growth.
Mr. WU GUI (Coal Miner): (Through translator) It's a glorious job. I am making a contribution to the country.
LIM: Fifty-two-year-old Wu Gui accompanies me on the train to the coalface. An old-time coal miner, he's being making this journey almost every day for 34 years. And he's in no doubt as to how important coal is being for his motherland.
Mr. WU GUI: (Through translator) If we couldn't find coal, China couldn't get richer and more powerful, and we wouldn't be able to improve people's living standards.
Unidentified Man: (Singing in Chinese)
LIM: The old company song emphasizes this, singing of the miners' bravery in the service of their country and progress. It's piped into the room where the miners collect their safety lamps, perhaps to buoy their moral. And Beijing is relying on these men to power its future, as Yang Fuqiang from the Energy Foundation spells out.
Mr. YANG FUQIANG (Energy Foundation): And China is number one coal consumption in the world. You know, U.S. is second. Russia and India and Japan, that is third to fifth. So China coal consumption equal to these four country total coal consumption.
(Soundbite of car engine, horn honking)
LIM: Coal lorries thunder past, many of them servicing power plants. The country's building 500 coal-fired power plants in the next decade, at the rate of almost one a week. And this massive appetite for coal means equally huge greenhouse gas emissions.
But Xu Dingming, one of the men in charge of China's energy policy, says coal-fired power plants are the quickest solution to its urgent need for more power.
Mr. XU DINGMING (Director-General, Energy Bureau, China National Development and Reform Commission): (Through translator) China has over 10 million people who still don't have electricity. When I visit rural areas, I meet children who've never seen an electric light.
(Soundbite of machine sounds)
LIM: The roar of a new coal-fired power plant. These are not just bringing light to rural villages, they're also powering the factories that make up China's exploding manufacturing base. And so in the last year alone, China's added generating capacity equal to the whole of France's electricity grid.
But this ravenous demand for electricity is putting pressure on the coalmines, and there's a terrible price to be paid.
Mr. TOU DEYUE (Resident, Xishui Village, China): (Through translator) Look how it's all collapsed here. You can imagine how much worse it was underground.
LIM: Sixty-nine-year-old Tou Deyue scrambles over the rubble outside his front gate. Everyday when he sees it, he's reminded of his loss. His son died inside this coal mine, along with 71 others, in a gas explosion two years ago. Mr. Tou says the rising price of coal blinded the mine boss to everything.
Mr. DEYUE: (Through translator) The accident was expected, because three days before someone had reported a gas leak in the mine. But the boss ignored it and ordered miners to keep working. The boss only cared about production and profit. He didn't care about the safety of the workers.
(Soundbite of clanking sounds)
LIM: The search for coal kills thousands of Chinese miners every year. Yet there's a bigger price that the whole world will pay in terms of the effects on its climate. Beijing needs coal to fuel its economic growth and guarantee its very survival. Yet its coal habit means it will soon overtake the U.S. as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases - some say as early as this year. How much money and effort Beijing chooses to push into controlling these emissions will be a critical factor in controlling global warming.
If China doesn't act aggressively, its addiction to king coal will have a profound effect - not just domestically, but on the rest of the world, too.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanxi province, China.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: And you can see the impact coal is having on one Chinese village at npr.org/climate.
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