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AsiaQuest is an interactive expedition developed by Classroom Connect. For five weeks a team of scientists and explorers will take a journey of discovery, following Marco Polo's footsteps along China's Silk Road. Follow along here for daily reports on the Quest.

Energy for a Growing (and Choking) Population

A smokestack billows black smoke at a coal-fired power plant in Xhangye, China.  

October 28, 1999
Web posted at: 4:09 p.m. EDT (2009 GMT)

By Christina Allen

As we head east along Marco Polo's route, the cities are getting bigger and more modern. Here in Zhangye, we see fewer farmers, donkey carts, and horses and more modern apartment buildings, hotels and lights. Compared to Kashgar, it's like Las Vegas! Everyone has electricity and at night the restaurants and storefronts are lit up like Christmas trees. Where does all this electricity come from?

Here's a clue. Marco Polo talked about Chinese people burning "black stones" that make "such capital fuel that no other is used throughout the country." Can you guess what he was talking about? If you can, you've hit on one of the biggest environmental issues in all of China.

Report: Day 19

The answer is coal. Coal is still the main source of energy in China today because it's cheap and plentiful (China has the largest coal reserves in the world). But because it creates some serious environmental and health problems, China is under pressure to stop using coal. I decided to visit a power plant to investigate the problem for myself.

At Zhangye's power plant, the big boss, Director Zhang (pronounced Jong) greeted us personally. He immediately impressed me as an enlightened person, bright and funny. He offered to give us a full tour of the facilities, "To help promote friendship and understanding between the Chinese and Americans." Upon entering the plant, I was amazed at how clean and efficient it was, not the sooty place full of workers shoveling coal that I'd imagined. In fact, there was hardly anyone there. Everything was so automated that a minimum of 12 people per shift can run the whole plant!

meeting worker
Christina meets with a worker at a coal-fired power plant in Xhangye, China.  

But the thick black smoke puffing out of the smokestack suggested another side of the coal story. Black smoke means incomplete, inefficient burning. I can't say for sure if Director Zhang's plant is inefficient, but on a nationwide level, China has some problems. China consumes only twice the energy as Germany (China has about 17 times more people) but emits 15 times more dust and 4 times more toxic gases. This is mostly due to emissions. Often, factory waste in China still contains so much coal that farmers cart it away to burn it again in their homes.

The smoke created from burning coal pollutes the air with particles and gasses that contribute to smog, acid rain, global warming, and respiratory diseases like lung cancer and bronchitis. Respiratory disease is the biggest cause of death in China, and 26% of all deaths are attributed to poor air quality. But some problems caused by China's coal use extend much farther than China itself. By the year 2020, China is predicted to be the world leading producer of carbon dioxide and other gasses that cause global warming. Sulfur dioxide, which is released into the atmosphere when coal is burned, causes acid to rain down on countries across Asia and even as far as Europe!

More on AsiaQuest
from Classroom Connect:
     • Kid Profile
     • Mystery Photo
     • Science Stumper
     • Quest Map
     • Mystery Photo

Because of the pollution they create, there is international pressure to shut down many of the coal-burning plants in China by the year 2003, including the one in Zhangye. But what are the alternatives? Since China has large reserves of cheap coal, switching to a more expensive source is a difficult proposition. Right now, the second largest energy source in China is biomass, such as firewood, grass, straw, roots etc. which is also cheap but leads to massive deforestation and degradation of grasslands each year.

On paper, it seems China's best option is to create electricity from its many fast-flowing rivers (called "hydroelectric" power). Hydroelectric is a renewable energy source that doesn't pollute the air, but damming rivers has its own set of environmental consequences. For example, the nearly completed Yangtze River Project is predicted to provide 8% of the country's energy needs, control natural flooding and simplify river travel and trade by flattening out the river's naturally steep grade. But damming the river and creating the reservoir behind it will also flood forests full of rare, perhaps even undiscovered animals and plants, drown thousands of ancient ruins, displace huge numbers of people, and block the natural travel routes of animals like the endangered Yangtze River dolphin. Is it worth it?

We all have a part to play in reducing pollution. Even with our more efficient technologies, the pollution created by industrialized nations, including the United States is much higher than that of China. But as China modernizes, this is changing. In the past five years, China has made some amazing economic advances, which have brought a higher standard of living for its citizens, but also a rapidly-increasing demand for energy. I sympathize with leaders like the friendly Director Zhang for the tough decisions the coming years will bring.

Seeking Enlightenment,
Christina Allen

CNN In-Depth Special - Visions of China

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Asia Quest
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