BOSTON--China has yet to cope with the hidden costs of producing electricity as it launches a program to lead the world in electric cars, experts say.
The issues were highlighted by separate reports this month on China's plans to promote new high-tech electric vehicles and its struggles with corruption at dangerous coal mines, which provide 80 percent of the fuel for producing power.
On April 11, The New York Times reported that cover-ups of coal mine deaths are "disturbingly common" in China. The paper cited the notorious case of an explosion at the state- owned Lijiawa Coal Mine in Hebei province' Yuxian county last July 14.
Although the blast killed 35 workers, it went unreported until October because journalists were bribed and victims' families were paid to keep silent. The unlicensed mine was filled with dirt and sealed, the Times said. The bodies were hidden in surrounding areas, the state-controlled China Daily reported last year.
The Hebei scandal, which led to dismissal of 25 local officials, was particularly egregious, but the Times cited complaints by work safety officials that death tolls at coal mines are "often ratcheted down or not reported at all."
"I think concealment of accidents is very common," said Tim Wright, a coal expert and professor of Chinese studies at Great Britain's University of Sheffield, in a Radio Free Asia interview.
Wright said major disasters like that at the Lijiawa mine may be hard to keep secret, but accidents that kill one or two miners may be routinely covered up. One Chinese expert has suggested that "more of such accidents were concealed than are reported," said Wright.
Over 3,200 workers died in China's coal mines last year, 15 percent fewer than in 2007, according to official figures from the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS). Wright believes some improvement in the real numbers is likely, but cover-ups make the figures impossible to verify.
While China produces more than twice as much coal as the United States, its death toll in mines is over 100 times higher, based on official reports in both countries.
But China's push into electric cars paints a very different picture. China plans to become the world's largest maker of the clean-running vehicles by offering incentives to both producers and buyers, the Times reported, also on April 11.
Under the plan unveiled at a conference in Beijing, the government is offering 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) in research support for industry development and subsidies to buyers such as taxi fleets of as much as 60,000 yuan per car, said Vice Minister of Finance Zhang Shaochun.
As part of the effort, the alliance of France's Renault and Nissan of Japan announced a partnership with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to promote zero-emission vehicles, the official Xinhua news agency reported. Nissan has signed an agreement with the central city of Wuhan, one of 13 urban centers in a pilot program to promote new energy vehicles for public transport, Xinhua said.
But the image of nonpolluting vehicles in China's cities contrasts sharply with the fuel that the country uses for the vast majority of its electricity, which will power the cars, experts note.
"If you have all these electric cars on the road, where does electricity come from?" said Robert Ebel, senior adviser to the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It has to come from coal, and that doesn't contribute to clean air. It contributes to dirty air."
In addition to mining fatalities, China's huge coal production of over 2.7 billion tons annually has been blamed for much of the nation's pollution and health problems.
"Once economic growth picks up in again in China, it is difficult to see enough power capacity being available to support large fleets of cars," said Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert at Scotland's University of Dundee in an e-mail response. "Or, if the power stations are built, they will just create more pollution through the burning of coal."
The push for cleaner cities may also have a social impact on the less influential countryside where coal is produced. Although China plans to increase production from wind power and nuclear generation, most of the shift from using motor fuels for transport is still likely to rely on coal.
"The people that have the political clout are the people living in cities, and there's no doubt that the atmosphere in the cities does desperately need to be cleaned up," said Wright. "The downside of that is borne by other people in the rural areas."
Ebel sees a political benefit for China in making the case that it is promoting zero-emission vehicles as it faces negotiations for a new global agreement on climate change.
"They hope that it plays well in the West. They know what's coming, a substitute for the Kyoto Protocol, and they want to be able to show what they're doing," said Ebel. "But you don't have to think very deep to ask where all the electricity is going to come from."
Wright said the government seems to be showing sensitivity to the high social cost of coal by setting goals for reducing mine accidents as part of its new Human Rights Action Plan, announced April 13.
Under the plan, the government seeks to lower the number of deaths from industrial accidents per unit of GDP by 35 percent in 2010, compared with 2005. It would also cut the number of fatalities per 100,000 workers in factories, mines, and business by 25 percent, Xinhua said.
But Wright said numerical targets can have the opposite effect on the incidence of cover-ups.
"There's no doubt about that," Wright said. "The pressure on lower officials whose careers depend on meeting the targets they're given is very strong, so there is certainly incentive for them to report that the targets have been met."