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September 23, 2017

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Coal miner's dilemma mirrors that of China

ANSHUN, China -- Forty years of digging for coal have left the miner with tuberculosis and drained his village water supply. But he, like China, clings to the resource as his economic mother lode.

"If I did farming, it would take me a year to get what I make in a month," said the 55-year-old, surnamed Di, sporting the blackened fingernails of someone who has spent most of his days beneath the hills of China's poverty-stricken Guizhou province.

His lungs "don't hurt much," he said, although in any case he cannot afford treatment.

China too has embraced the economic benefits of coal despite the threats it poses to health and the environment.

But anger has mounted over the stubborn smog that regularly cloaks Chinese cities, and authorities have repeatedly promised action since President Xi Jinping took office a year ago.

Premier Li Keqiang vowed to "declare war against pollution," speaking Wednesday at the opening of the Communist-controlled National People's Congress legislature's annual session.

The government will cap total energy consumption, shut 50,000 small coal-fired furnaces, clean up major coal-burning power plants and take six million high-emission vehicles off the roads, he promised.

Yet in practice, changing course will be tough in the face of swelling energy demand and pressure to sustain economic growth, already at its lowest levels since 1999.

"Since environmental issues have become so public — everybody is talking about them, the international community is talking about them — the government feels the need to deal with environmental issues more seriously," said Xiaomin Liu, a Beijing-based coal expert with the consultancy IHS CERA.

"They will do a lot of things, but I don't think that will change things fundamentally," he said. "The first priority is still to keep up economic growth."

Smog Scandal

China uses more energy than any other country and is responsible for about half the world's coal consumption, relying on the fossil fuel for two-thirds of its energy supply.

Public pressure over pollution erupted in January 2013 when an "airpocalypse" of smog choked Beijing, with particulate matter shooting 40 times past U.N. standards and horrifying images spreading worldwide.

The scandal prompted authorities to stop burying the problem — cities and state-controlled media began reporting on air quality, and this year 15,000 factories were required to regularly publicize emissions data.

Over the past year Beijing has already allocated 1.7 trillion yuan (US$280 billion) to improve air quality and pledged to evaluate officials not only by their economic but also environmental record.

Last September it announced tough air pollution limits, called for coal-use cuts in three densely populated areas, including the capital, and promised to shave nationwide coal consumption to 65 percent of total energy by 2017.

Some of the targets were "ambitious," sending an important message, said Alvin Lin, the Beijing-based China climate and energy policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"Once you send that signal, then everybody has to try to meet it."

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