NYT ran the latest in their “energy challenge” series on Sunday: “The Cost of Coal” looks at China’s coal use and resulting pollution problems.

It starts off with a bleak portrait …

One of China’s lesser-known exports is a dangerous brew of soot, toxic chemicals and climate-changing gases from the smokestacks of coal-burning power plants

… and moves on down from there.

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The authors, Bradsher and Barboza, do a good job laying out the bind China’s in with energy use tied to their economic growth.

So far, the nation has been making decisions that it hopes will lessen the health-damaging impact on its own country while sustaining economic growth as cheaply as possible.

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They also point out many of the international dimensions of the situation: acid rain from China reaching other countries like Korea and Japan; the role of international politics on China’s ability to implement cleaner coal plant technology.

There’s also a discussion of the nasty relationship between sulfur emissions and global warming. Radically cleaning up sulfur emissions will probably accelerate climate change.

China contributes one-sixth of the world’s sulfur pollution. Together with the emissions from various other countries, those from China seem to offset more than one-third of the warming effect from manmade carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere, according to several climate models.

In total, it’s a pretty scary portrayal of what happens when you try to power a modern consumer society on coal. Definitely a worthwhile read, and a good piece to have out in the public sphere.

One important issue the authors neglected is the recent excitement about coal here in the U.S. There’s a graph that projects coal use in the U.S. and China to 2010, but it looks like U.S. coal consumption is flat. If recent chatter about coal’s boom holds true, we may find ourselves shoulder to shoulder with China in coal use and coal problems.

Here in the U.S., we should make sure any discussion about our coal use doesn’t obscure the reality of what it’s like to use coal as intensively as they do in China. We can’t allow coal boosters to casually wave off concerns about the environmental impact from increased coal. For me, China demonstrates how far down a country will go in terms of pollution just to protect economic growth. Over here we’ve mostly had it both ways, but I’m not sure when push comes to shove we won’t darken our skies just to keep the malls open.