As a child in the 1980s, Wang Xiaojun was taught to be proud of his hometown of Lüliang, in northwest China’s Shanxi Province. Shanxi is the largest coal-producing region in China, and Lüliang was an important base for the Red Army during World War II.
Nestled in the mountains of the dusty Loess Plateau, Lüliang, a city of 3.4 million people, has had less reason to scream in recent years. A series of corruption scandals in the city brought down several high-profile officials shortly after President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013; there is concern about the high number of babies born with birth defects, to which experts attribute air pollution; And last week, a major flood forced coal mines to shut down just as China was rushing to tackle its energy crisis.
Coal is the main source of power generation in China, but Xi has vowed to change that. The country has been the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions for more than a decade. A year ago, Xi pledged to peak his country’s carbon emissions by 2030 and then reach carbon neutrality by 2060. Last month, he announced that China would stop building new coal projects abroad in a a measure that, according to analysts, could be critical to addressing global emissions. .
Ending dependence on coal at home has proven more difficult. Shortly after taking office, Xi began planning the “low-carbon” and “sustainable” development of “resource-based cities.” But since September, China has been experiencing its own coal dilemma, with power shortages spread across key regions, causing a ripple effect on the world economy. To cope with the crisis, officials ordered more than 70 mines in Inner Mongolia to increase coal production by almost 100 million tons earlier this month. And on September 29, Shanxi promised to supply coal to 14 other regions in China to ensure sufficient power this winter.
Outside of China, there are fears that Beijing is reconsidering its promises on decarbonization. That mood was clouded last week, when it emerged that Xi would not be attending Cop26 in person. It’s a concern some veteran China analysts dismiss as an over-interpretation: Xi has not left the country since January 2020 and was always unlikely to make an exception for Cop26, particularly as it is being hosted by a Western nation.
They argue that Beijing’s recent whac-a-mole approach simply reflects the messy reality of the country’s energy transition. For Shanxi residents, however, China’s reliance on dirty coal is a vicious cycle that the province of 37 million people cannot easily get out of, despite promises from the central government. “It’s not about whether China can depend less on coal eventually, it’s more about what will happen in a province like ours afterward,” said Wang, who now works as a climate activist. the observer.
“As an activist, of course I would like my hometown to stay away from coal. After all, I grew up only knowing that the sky is gray and coal is the only source of energy. But I am also concerned about what will happen to a province whose economy is overwhelmingly dependent on coal and heavy industries, and the millions of people whose livelihoods depend on them. “
In Lüliang, villages like Wang’s are often built on arid mountains to avoid constant flooding. Until the 1980s, most children grew up to become farmers. Later, coal became a valuable commodity when China began to expand its economy. But a few years ago, when coal ran out under some mountains, many villages collapsed and people died. Those who survived moved out. In the ancient village of Wang, there are only three elderly people left, he said. “They are reluctant to move. It’s where they spent most of their lives. “
Growing up with the coal miners in the village, Wang saw with his own eyes how dangerous mines could be. Seven years ago, while working in a coal mine, Wang’s cousin, Wang Xiaobing, 38, had an accident. A roof collapsed and he lost his left leg. He was sent home after the incident. But, with a young family to support and without the skills to change careers, Xiaobing eventually returned to his old mine as a driver. Soon after, he developed lung and liver disease and died two years ago.
“You see, the addiction to coal is not only on a national level, but also on a personal level. It is not easy to walk away, “said Wang.” Many people here, including another relative of mine, are not happy with [media] talk about climate change and [the government’s] effort to reduce coal consumption. For us, this is bread and butter. Without him, what would Lüliang be like?
“They must start preparing for a coal-free future right now, before it’s too late.”
Stories like this have been all too common in China’s coal regions in the past two decades. In the decade between 2000 and 2010, on average, up to 4,870 people died in mine accidents each year. In the US, the figure was just 33. The figure began to decline dramatically in the last decade when the government imposed strict safety rules on mine owners and nationalized many mines.
Han Jinsong, a 50-year-old former coal miner from Fengyang City, said the observer that while also working as a miner, his older brother was hit by a car from the mine and remained in hospital for about six months. “He was disabled and the coal mine he worked in made up for it once,” he said. “That is all.”
Han, who did not want to use his real name, added: “Despite all these tragedies, it is unrealistic for China to turn away from coal. You’ve seen the recent power shortage spread across the country. Now the government has to reopen the coal mines to meet the growing demand. It will always be a dilemma. “
It is a reality that senior officials have openly admitted. “China’s energy structure is dominated by coal power. This is an objective reality, ”said Su Wei, deputy secretary-general of the National Development and Reform Commission in Beijing in April. “We have no choice. Over a period of time, we may need to use coal power as a flexible set point.”
“The rise and fall of Lüliang, as well as other coal-heavy cities, is also the story of China’s changing economic and social structure,” said Judith Audin, a French sociologist who writes about the coal industry in the province of Shanxi. In 2010, when the “Shanxi Coal Chief”, a term used as a symbol of Dickensian China, was frequently featured on social media, Lüliang’s GDP growth was at a staggering 21%. In 2020, it was only 2.7%.
Local officials have been talking about transition for a long time. When Lüliang’s economy was booming a decade ago, billions were invested in apartment buildings for road construction. But by 2015, the supply had far exceeded the demand. Along with a decrease in coal consumption, the local economy collapsed, and the mayor was fired on corruption charges.
“Across Shanxi, there have also been other experiments in recent years,” Audin said. In Datong, the “coal capital” of China, the coal mining land is now covered in solar panels and wind turbines.
“But even if these efforts are ultimately successful, to what extent will these new energy businesses absorb the excess labor left by coal mining?” Audin said. “And how would the authorities deal with the generations of coal miners and their families who have helped power China but have no other skills in the new economy?”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism