China: Where the air is like lead

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The Independent Online

You can practically taste the sulphur in these photographs. You can smell the reek, and feel the weight of the filthy air on your lungs. Here in a handful of images is the world's disastrous future – and it is nothing other than our own tragic and oppressive recent past, writ large, fast and Chinese.

China has some of the worst coal mines in the modern world, and its coal industry is the deadliest on earth. In the first half of this year, 1,175 miners were killed in accidents, because of the furious rush to hack out the black stuff and ship it to the surface fast enough to keep the nation's turbo-charged factories pumping out the product.

The disasters are so frequent they barely register in the Western news any more. If any other developed nation lost 100 workers in a single industrial accident, it would be front-page news. But when 104 miners were killed at Xinxing pit under a state-owned mine in Heilongjiang province last week, the fact barely registered.

Now China, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases and the nation with some of the most polluted cities in the world, has decided to take climate change seriously, announcing that it will cut output of carbon dioxide gas per unit of gross domestic product by 40 to 45 per cent by 2020 from 2005 levels. But as was quickly pointed out, in absolute terms China's carbon emissions will continue to rise steeply, as long as its industrial output does.

The central government has set a target of generating 15 per cent of all electricity from renewable sources by 2020, but coal will continue to be the economy's mainstay for the foreseeable future: today coal accounts for 69 per cent of China's primary energy – 42 per cent higher than the world's average. And so this is the price the country is paying for its prosperity: smoggy skies, worsening typhoons, desertification and melting glaciers, that are the consequences of burning fossil fuels in huge quantities.

These men at a mine in Changzhi, Shanxi province, will not be out of work for a while yet. But their life expectancy is another matter.

The government has in fact been making strenuous efforts to improve the safety standards of the coal industry, with experts on hand to make sure that shafts are evacuated when gas reaches certain levels. But there are still many small, illegal mines with appalling standards. While state mining authorities have been battling to wipe out corruption, many miners die in these unregulated mines dotted around the country, run by unscrupulous mine bosses maximising their profits.

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