Xinyuan Coal Mine operated by Yangquan Coal Industry Group Co. in Jinzhong, Shanxi Province in October.

Qilai Shen / Bloomberg via Getty Images

DATONG, China – The walls and ceiling of the Nanshan Mine glow shimmering black, dug directly into a 200 million year old coal seam 1,300 feet underground. The dark veins of Jurassic-era coal deposits still crisscross northern China’s Shanxi Province, enriching public coffers and now generations of regularly employed miners.

Last year, China pledged to become carbon neutral by 2060, an ambitious endeavor for a country that still depends on coal for more than half of its energy needs. The country has invested heavily in solar, wind and nuclear power. Still, coal-fired heavy industry still accounted for about 37% of all its economic activity last year, and some provinces are even planning to increase coal-fired power generation.

These contradictions and the slow and convoluted transition out of coal are already being felt in Datong, an ancient walled city in the heart of Chinese coal country in Shanxi.

There, miners continue to pump coal even as the state limits new mining licenses and funds nearby solar panel farms. Last year, a Shanxi state merger created one of the world’s largest coal companies, pushing back small mines as environmental protection rules are enforced more strictly.

“When you were born near the mines, you are destined to go down there. There is only work of mine here,” said Zhang Si, a retired miner.

“Coal is still the king”

Coal mining began in Datong 1,500 years ago, when people started digging shallow deposits, using rough hand tools and lowering canaries to detect dangerous gases. They burned charcoal for heat. Industrial mining took off after China’s economic reforms in the late 1970s, and by the 1990s the city had 287 producing mines.

In the decades that followed, coal provided a stable wage for millions of miners. In 2015, Shanxi Province employed more than 930,000 miners, a quarter of the country’s total number.

In 1970, a young Zhang was recruited as a frontline miner by the Jinhuagong mine. He still lives nearby. “Selling coal was great. There were so many and the country needed it, ”he recalls.

Two images are combined side by side.  The image on the left shows a brick building with chimneys or cooling towards the elevation.  The image on the right shows children in safety helmets grouped together in a group.

Left: A processing plant at the former Jinhua Coal Mine, one of the smaller mines merged to form a state-owned holding company last year in an effort to save the struggling coal sector from Province. Right: School children visit the Nanshan Coal Mine, which was recently opened to tourists. Large deposits remain, but stricter environmental regulations and the focus on renewables have slowed mining activity.

Emily Feng / NPR

His son followed in his footsteps, tapping into the deepest recesses of the mine to haul the coal to the surface. Her daughters work as nurses for a local coal subsidiary.

But mining has exacted a huge environmental cost. Until the mid-2000s, Shanxi had some of the most polluted cities in China. Residents burned lumps of coal in the open to warm up during the freezing winters.

Business was going well, however; Datong’s abundant coal-fired steel and aluminum factories across the country. In 2019, coal-fired power accounted for over 57% of China’s energy consumption. In 2020 alone, China added 38.4 gigawatts of coal-fired electricity to its capacity, more than three times the combined amount built that year in the rest of the world.

To boost China’s post-pandemic economy, policymakers have even relaxed the rules to facilitate more local investment in coal-fired power plants.

“The point is, coal is still king here in this country,” says Li Shuo, who follows China’s carbon emissions and energy policy for Greenpeace East Asia.

Ambitious goals, few concrete plans

So far, China’s top leaders have not specified how they plan to reduce their dependence on coal.

“China will strictly control coal-fired power generation projects and limit the increase in coal consumption,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said at an online climate summit called by President Biden earlier this year. But he avoided giving a more detailed energy commitment.

An industrial looking building that has been painted blue.

Coal processing equipment in the old Jinhua Coal Mine. A train once carried coal from the mine in front of this tower at least once a day, says train conductor Zhang Puyuan. Since a state merger, the train only runs about once a week.

Amy Cheng / NPR

When Xi made an official visit to Datong last May, he opted for a photo op next to ancient Buddhist caves and local poverty alleviation offices, rather than a mine.

Contrary to the expectations of energy policy analysts, China’s 14th Five-Year Plan, an economic plan released this year, does not limit dependence on coal or the consumption of electricity. The plan aims to increase non-fossil energy from the current level of 15.3% to power one-fifth of the country’s total expected energy use by 2025. And it aims to continue reducing carbon emissions – but only by maintaining, rather than accelerating, trends that have existed over the past five years.

“One narrative is being generated by high level political announcements to achieve zero carbon over the next four decades,” Li said. “The other narrative is that we will always need to use coal because it provides security energy. Which of these two narratives will ultimately prevail? “

Currently, China appears to be going both ways, in order to meet growing domestic demand for electricity. Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi, two of China’s main coal-producing provinces, will increase energy production – largely coal-fired – by 1% and 4% per year. To commit to becoming carbon neutral in less than four decades, China will need other provinces to increase their renewable energy capacity.

In Datong, the mixed legacy of coal mining suggests that coal will still be present in China for the foreseeable future, albeit in limited quantities.

Last year, the provincial government ordered five of its largest coal companies to merge into a single state conglomerate, the Jinneng Holding Group. The group has a combined production of 420 million tonnes of coal per year, according to an industry association, making it one of the largest coal producers in the world.

The merger is supposed to make the bloated coal sector more efficient and keep coal prices high by coordinating production. In practice, miners say the merger has resulted in less work as mines reduce work shifts as national and local environmental regulations have tightened, making it difficult to obtain new licenses and costly to open new mines and modernize existing ones.

“Some days the mine is not open at all and we are not allowed to talk about the closure. The coal train here was running at least once a day. Now it’s more like once every seven or so. eight days, ”says Zhang. Puyuan, a conductor who helps supervise a freight train carrying coal out of the Jinhua mine, one of the five has merged.

Older-looking brick buildings can be seen in the foreground, with towers in the background that could be chimneys or cooling towers.

The village near the old Jinhua coal mine. Most residents have been relocated to more modern accommodation, but there are still a few older minors.

Emily Feng / NPR

Small mines, such as the nearby Sitai mine, are reducing their production. They have depleted most of the easily accessible coal deposits and no new permits are granted to dig new mines. Younger miners were given the opportunity to retrain and move to larger state-run mines, such as the Tashan mine, the largest in the province.

A miner named Zhang (and unrelated to previous Zhang) is 56 years old and a few years away from retirement. He didn’t want NPR to use his full name because of political sensitivities around discussions of crucial economic trends like the mine shutdown. Because he does the most dangerous job of breaking into the deepest tunnels, he makes a good living – over $ 1,700 a month, about double the national average salary. He hopes his college-aged son decides to return home and work in the mines as well.

“I think my son will be the last generation of miners,” Zhang said.

But her son might not have that option. Nearby, the local government has already built a huge solar farm on the rolling slopes of an old mine.

For China to meet its carbon reduction targets, one more generation of coal could be one generation too many.

Amy Cheng contributed research from Datong, China.

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