Securing China: Coal vs. Human Rights

11 Mar

The profound growth of the Chinese economy since 1989 has systematically led to an increase in the demand for energy and as a result, greater pollution. The causation effect here is not unique to China; however the rapidness of the transition is unprecedented. Moreover it can be identified that China’s “environmental problems are among the most severe of any major country, and are mostly getting worse” (Diamond, 2005, p. 016). In the following short article I will look at China’s economic growth and coal dependence, the environmental affects and finally whether it inhibits citizens’ human rights.

The relationship between China’s economic growth and coal dependence is noticeable; between 1989 and 2013, China’s GDP Annual Growth Rate was undoubtedly phenomenal, averaging 9.2% reaching an all-time high of 14.2% in December 1992 and a record low of 3.8% in December 1990 (, 2014). Coinciding with this rapid growth, particularly in the last decade, is China’s ever-growing demand for coal such that “over the last decade, more than 80% of the global increase in coal demand came from China alone” (Facing China’s Coal Future, 2014, p. 7). This growth is undoubtedly astounding. According to the OECD (Facing China’s Coal Future, 2014, p. 7), China consumed 2271 Mtoe in 2009 making it the largest energy consumer in the world, ahead of the United States of America on 2160 Mtoe. However, not only is the consumption growth staggering, but the countries reliance on coal as a fuel is arguably worrying. According to a recent BP (2014) statistical review, coal is the principal fuel in energy demand in China, accounting for 68% of the total fuel demand. Specifically in the power sector, 78.7% of China’s electricity was produced from coal in 2009 (Facing China’s Coal Future, 2014, p. 7). The heavy reliance on this fuel is worrying for China’s economic stability, but perhaps more worryingly is the implications this has on China and its people.

Research suggests that the growth in coal usage profoundly increases global warming, causing dramatic effects on human security.

According to the United States Congress: “from mining to coal cleaning, from transportation to electricity generation to disposal, coal releases numerous toxic pollutants into the air, the waters and onto the lands” (Office of Technology Assessment, 1979).  The effects of this are known. “Every year, China accounts for nearly 80% of the world’s total coal related deaths, occurring from accidents”. Furthermore, indirectly “the mining activities cause emissions of sulfur dioxide, methane, and oxides of nitrogen, which are major contributors of global warming” (Michieka and Fletcher et al., n.d., pp. 6-9). Taken together the increased coal consumption in China coincides with poor air quality and poor health.

The effects of coal mining thus violate three basic human rights, both in China and outside of it’s borders. China’s large contribution to climate change undermines the human right to subsistence; all persons have a human right that other people do not act so as to deprive them of the means of subsistence. This right will be violated by climate change because firstly temperature increases will lead to drought and thereby undermine food security [e.g. South Africa]. Secondly sea-level rises will involve loss of land to the sea and thus hit agriculture badly [e.g. Bangladesh]and flooding will also lead to crop failure. Third, and finally, freak weather events will also destroy agriculture (Caney, 2010, pp. 163–177). In this circumstance, most of the effects identified will impact smaller, poorer countries outside of China, and as a result it can be noted that the effects of China’s consumption of coal are deeply felt elsewhere.

The high dependency on coal also undermines the human right to life: all persons have a human right not to be “arbitrarily deprived of his life” (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (1976), Article 6.1). A. Haines, R. S. Kovats, D. Campbell-Lendrum, and C. Corvalan report that “More than 2000 excess deaths were reported in England and Wales during the major heat wave that affected most of Western Europe in 2003. The greatest impact on mortality occurred in France, where it was estimated that 14800 excess deaths occurred during the first 3 weeks of August 2003 than would be expected for that time of year. Deaths in Paris increased by 140%.”(SIM and HAINES et al., 2006). This highlights that the effects of climate change fundamentally undermine the human right to life.

The final human right that is substantially threatened by climate change is the human right to health. Simon Caney (2010, pp. 163–177) advocates that “The Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC notes, for example, that anthropogenic climate change will

  • ‘increase the number of people suffering from … disease and injury from heatwaves, floods, storms, fires and droughts’;
  • increase the range of malaria in some places but decrease it in others;
  • increase ‘the burden of diarrhoeal diseases’;
  • ‘increase cardio-respiratory morbidity … associated with ground-level ozone’”
  • ·

Indeed, the human right to health is what is fundamentally undermined in China. In a report in November 2010, China’s environmental protection ministry suggested that about a third of 113 cities surveyed failed to meet national air standards in the previous year. Moreover, according to the World Bank 16 of the world’s 20 cities with the worst air are in China. Furthermore by Europe Union Standards only 1 percent of the China’s 560 million city dwellers breath air considered safe (Hays, n.d.). These statistics suggest that the problem caused predominantly by coal production in China is of fundamental importance to China’s health.

We have noted that climate change undoubtedly weakens human security and fundamentally undermines human rights. However we must note that the problem is not just in China, all over the world countries are emitting too much, generating lasting impacts on countries all over the globe.  Moreover it must be noted that China is still developing, and thus it would not be just to inhibit China’s economic growth through controlled carbon emissions, when other the world’s most developed nation-states were able to develop without environmental restrictions. The worrying notion with China is that it relies so heavily on coal for its economic growth that a decision to lower its use would be bold, and is only likely to arise when an efficient alternative is known.
In the meantime, China must weigh up the economic consequences of reducing coal consumption, with the current human costs.

Word Count: 1059


bp. 2014. BP Statistical Review China 2012. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 10 Mar 2014].

Caney, S. 2010. Climate change, human rights, and moral thresholds. Climate ethics: Essential readings, pp. 163–177.

Diamond, J. 2005. China’s Environment in a Globalizing World: How China and the rest of the world affect each other [J]. World Environment, 4 p. 016.

Facing China’s Coal Future. 2014. [e-book] p. 7. Available through: OECD Library [Accessed: 10 Mar 2014].

Hays, J. n.d. AIR POLLUTION IN CHINA | Facts and Details. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 10 Mar 2014].

Michieka, N., Fletcher, J. and Burnett, W. n.d. THE COST OF ENERGY – THE ENVIRONMENTAL EFFECTS OF COAL PRODUCTION IN CHINA. [e-book] pp. 6-9. [Accessed: 10 Mar 2014].

SIM, F., HAINES, M. A., KOVATS, R., CAMPBELL-LENDRUM, D. and CORVALAN, C. 2006. Climate change and human health: impacts, vulnerability, and mitigation. Commentary. Lancet, 367 (9528). 2014. China GDP Annual Growth Rate. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 10 Mar 2014]. n.d. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 10 Mar 2014].

United States. Congress. Office of Technology Assessment. 1979. The direct use of coal: prospects and problems of production and combustion, Volume 22. OTA. [report] Michigan: Congress of the United States, Office of Technology Assessment.


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