LINFEN, China – Desperate to meet its electricity needs, China is opening up new coal production to surpass all Western European mines in a year, at enormous cost to the global climate change effort .
The campaign sparked a wave of activity in China’s coal mining country. Inactive mines restart. Yellow cottage-sized backhoes clear and widen the roads past the terraced cornfields. Long columns of bright red freight trucks converge on the area to carry the extra cargo.
China’s push will come at a high cost. Burning coal, already the leading global cause of man-made climate change, will increase China’s emissions and toxic air pollution. It will endanger the lives of coal miners. And that could impose a long-term cost on the Chinese economy, while promoting short-term growth.
World leaders are meeting next week in Glasgow to discuss ways to stop climate change. But the extra coal from China would on its own increase human production of carbon dioxide that warms the planet by a percentage point, said Jan Ivar Korsbakken, senior researcher at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo.
“The timing is horrible, right before the climate summit,” he said. “Hopefully this is only a temporary measure to alleviate the current energy crisis. “
Beijing’s leaders are determined to provide enough coal this winter to power Chinese factories and heat its homes. Widespread electricity shortages, caused in part by coal shortages, nearly crippled many industrial towns three weeks ago.
China is expanding its mines to produce 220 million metric tons of additional coal per year, an increase of nearly 6% from last year. China is already digging up and burning more coal than the rest of the world combined.
The effort is imbued with patriotism. “Secure Supply” has become a national slogan, now appearing frequently in state media and official statements and even on red banners on the front of coal trucks.
If the campaign is successful, China will generate enough electricity not only for its own people, but also for the hundreds of global companies in China that produce everything from consumer electronics to auto parts. Business leaders say electricity shortages have already mostly abated in recent days. Coal shipments have increased, utilities are producing more electricity, energy-hungry steel mills have cut production, and mild weather has limited residential use.
The potential costs, on the other hand, go beyond global warming emissions.
Rapid expansion means additional risks for the country’s 2.6 million coal miners. China’s National Mine Safety Administration said on Oct. 21 that 10 accidents had killed 18 people in the previous four weeks, mostly in coal mines.
Some mining companies still suffer from “weak safety development concepts, inadequate accident learning, inadequate investigation and management of potential safety risks, and poor basic safety management. “Said the administration.
China has made huge strides towards cleaner air over the past decade, but further use of coal could threaten some of that progress. As recently as 2015, air pollution contributed to 1.6 million premature deaths per year. The Chinese government warned on Monday that air pollution had increased in major cities in recent days but did not specify a cause.
The heart of the industry is in the Appalachian Mountains of China, in Shanxi Province, 300 miles southwest of Beijing. It is a region of steep hills and valleys, often terraced, where coal has been mined for 2,100 years.
The province mined nearly a billion metric tonnes of coal last year. This was only about a quarter of China’s total production, but still twice as much as in the United States or Australia.
As in the United States and elsewhere, residents of coal mining areas in China often support the industry and welcome additional production.
“Work is very important to me for a living,” said Wan Husheng, a semi-retired charcoal maker from Nanyaotou village, near the end of a long and narrow valley where small flocks of sheep grazed in fields. already brown and faded by autumn. “Coal is crucial.
Truck drivers have converged on Shanxi as mines ramp up production and utilities try to resupply.
Cong Yanping showed up in his red truck from coastal Shandong province and expected a slow three-day drive home with a full cargo. “Most of the time I usually live in the truck,” he said. “I take any order I receive.”
Environmental and safety decisions have played a key role in recent power shortages.
China has closed 5,500 coal mines, half the country’s total, in the past five years. Rusted carcasses of abandoned mines now litter the mountain valleys of western Shanxi, the long diagonals of their conveyor belts remaining silent in the wind and rain.
Older, smaller, more polluting and more dangerous mines, most of them private, have been closed. State-owned enterprises were allowed to build or develop more modern mines, but with a lower total capacity than closed mines.
Then strict new legislation came into effect on March 1. Mine managers who extract more coal than their government-approved capacity face long prison terms.
Many private mines had previously overproduced coal to earn additional profits. They often crammed more miners into underground coal seams than safety regulations allowed.
The state-owned enterprises that now dominate China’s coal mines have long been cautious about overproduction. Since March, they have become even more fearful.
“Now that this is a criminal charge, an executive, especially in a state-owned company, has no incentive to commit this offense,” said Kevin Tu, Beijing energy consultant and former program manager. China at the International Energy Agency in Paris.
The closure of small mines and a nationwide safety campaign have made coal mining much less dangerous. China lost 1,973 miners in 2011. Last year the death toll was 228.
The mine safety agency has only allowed 153 large mines, mostly state-owned, to expand in the coming months. Many small mines remained closed in west-central or southwestern Shanxi last week.
“The small coal mines have been closed,” said Qi Zhiping, a 68-year-old maintenance worker at the Longze coal processing plant, who has remained calm in recent years. “State-owned coal mines have standards.
Coal shortages weren’t China’s only electricity problem in September. A lack of rain in southwest China meant hydroelectric dams generated less electricity. The calm skies in northeast China meant that the wind turbines were also contributing less.
Coal prices have almost doubled. Utilities, prevented from raising prices, began to operate power plants less. Power outages followed as Chinese factories were operating at full capacity to meet high demand. Heavy rains and flooding in Shanxi in early October briefly delayed China’s initial ability to extract additional coal. The Shanxi government said Thursday that all but four mines had reopened.
The authorities responded by partially deregulating electricity prices. Depending on the province, energy-intensive industries like steel and chemical production are now facing cost increases of up to 50%. This could prompt them to embrace energy efficiency, said Yan Qin, senior analyst at Refinitiv, a data provider.
The expansion of coal mines generally takes decades to cover their investment cost. But the state-controlled utilities sector has already pledged to stop building coal-fired power plants after 2025.
Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, personally pledged last year that the country’s greenhouse gas emissions peak by 2030.
China reaffirmed this goal Thursday in a political statement to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, while stressing that China is making significant investments in solar and wind power.
China has released few details on how it will meet this target. Jin Liqun, former deputy finance minister and now chairman of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in Beijing, said in an interview that the increase in coal mining was only a temporary response to what had been a rapid Chinese imposition of restrictions on fossil fuels. fuels.
“Coal production at this point is a correction of an overshoot,” he said. “It’s not a long term trend.”
For now, Shanxi coal miners say the noise from working mines means more money for them and their communities.
“Workers dig black gold,” said Liang Lijian, a coal washing worker at the Huipodi coal complex in Liujiayuan, southwest Shanxi. “As soon as the machine works, tens of thousands of taels of gold are made.”
Li you contributed research.