China, coal and COP26: can the world’s largest emitter give up its dirty habit?

China, coal and COP26: can the world’s largest emitter give up its dirty habit?

As a little boy in the 1980s, Wang Xiaojun learned to be proud of his hometown of Lüliang, in northwest China’s Shanxi Province. Shanxi is China’s largest coal-producing region, and Lüliang was an important base for the military during World War II.

Nestled in the mountains of the dusty Loess Plateau, Lüliang, a city of 3.4 million people, has had less to scream in recent years. A series of corruption scandals in the city brought down several senior officials soon after President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013; the high number of babies born with birth defects, blamed by experts on air pollution, raises concerns; and, last week, a massive flood forced coal mines to close as China scrambles to deal with its energy crisis.

Coal is the main source of power generation in China, but Xi is committed to changing that. The country has been the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions for over a decade now. A year ago, Xi vowed that his country’s carbon emissions would peak by 2030, and then reach carbon neutrality by 2060. Last month, he announced that China would stop building new carbon projects. coal-fired power plants abroad, which analysts say could be key to tackling global emissions. .

Ending a charcoal addiction at home has proven to be trickier. Soon after taking office, Xi began planning for the sustainable and low-carbon development of “resource-based cities.” But since September, China has faced its own coal dilemma, with power shortages spread across key regions causing a ripple effect on the global economy. To deal with the crisis, authorities ordered more than 70 mines in Inner Mongolia to increase coal production by nearly 100 million tonnes earlier this month. And on September 29, Shanxi pledged to supply coal to 14 other regions in China to ensure sufficient power throughout this winter.

Outside of China, there are fears that Beijing may rethink its decarbonization promises. That mood darkened last week, when it emerged that Xi would not be attending Cop26 in person. It’s a concern some senior China analysts dismiss as an over-interpretation – Xi hasn’t left the country since January 2020 and he was still unlikely to make an exception for Cop26, especially considering ‘it is 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 the people of Shanxi, however, China’s dependence on dirty coal is a vicious cycle from which the province of 37 million people cannot easily extricate itself, despite promises from the central government. “It’s not about whether China can be less dependent on coal over time, but rather what happens to a province like ours afterwards,” said Wang, who now works as an activist for the climate. the observer.

Wang Xiaojun in his hometown of Lüliang, Shanxi Province. Photographie: Wade Dessart

“As an activist, of course I would like to see my hometown move away from coal. After all, I grew up knowing that the skies are gray and that coal is the only source of energy. But I’m also worried about what will happen to a province whose economy relies heavily on coal and heavy industries, and the millions of people whose livelihoods depend on it. “

In Lüliang, villages like Wang’s are often built on top of arid mountains to avoid constant flooding. Until the 1980s, most boys became farmers. Then coal became a precious commodity as China began to develop its economy. But a few years ago, as the coal ran out under some mountains, many villages collapsed and people died. Those who survived moved away. In the old village of Wang, only three elderly people are still there, he said. “They are reluctant to move. This is where they spent most of their life.

Growing up with coal miners in the village, Wang saw with his own eyes how dangerous mines can be. Seven years ago, while working in a coal mine, Wang’s 38-year-old cousin, Wang Xiaobing, suffered an accident. A ceiling collapsed and he lost his lower left leg. He was sent home after the incident. But, with a young family to support and lacking 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 dependence on coal is not only at the national level, but also at the personal level. It’s not easy to get away from it, ”Wang said. “A lot of people here, including another relative of mine, are unhappy with [media] talk about climate change and [the government’s] efforts to reduce coal consumption. For us, it’s bread and butter. Otherwise, what would Lüliang look like? “

“They need to start preparing for a coal-free future now before it’s too late. “

Stories like this have been rife in the coal regions of China for the past two decades. During the decade between 2000 and 2010, an average of 4,870 people died each year in mine accidents. In the United States, the figure was only 33. The figure began to decline dramatically over the past decade, as the government imposed strict safety regulations on mine owners and nationalized many mines.

Han Jinsong (not his real name), a 50-year-old former coal miner from Fengyang City, said that while he was also working as a miner, his older brother was run over by a wagon and was left behind. ‘hospital for about six months. . “He became disabled and the coal mine he worked in compensated once,” he said. ” That’s it. “

A worker cleans a conveyor belt used to transport coal near a mine in Datong, China’s coal-producing Shanxi Province. Photography: Greg Baker / AFP / Getty Images

Han added, “Despite all these tragedies, it is unrealistic for China to move away from coal. You have seen the recent blackouts spread across the country. Now the government must reopen the coal mines to meet the acceleration in 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. It is an objective reality, ”said Su Wei, deputy secretary general of the National Development and Reform Commission in Beijing, in April. “We have no other choice. For a while, we may need to use coal power as a flexible adjustment point. “

“The rise and fall of Lüliang – as well as other cities with a high concentration of coal – is also the story of the evolution of the economic and social structure of China,” said Judith Audin, a French sociologist. who writes about the coal industry in Shanxi Province. In 2010, when “Shanxi’s Coal Boss” – a term used as a symbol of China à la Dickens – featured frequently on social media, Lüliang’s GDP growth was 21%. In 2020, it was only 2.7%.

Local elected officials have been talking about transition for a long time. When Lüliang’s economy was booming ten years ago, billions were invested in the construction of roads and apartment buildings. But by 2015, supply had greatly exceeded demand. Coupled with a decrease in coal consumption, the local economy collapsed and the mayor was sacked for corruption.

“All over Shanxi, there have been other experiences in recent years as well,” Audin said. In Datong, China’s “coal capital”, the coalfields are now covered with solar panels and wind turbines.

“But even if these efforts were ultimately successful, to what extent will these new energy companies absorb the excess labor left behind by coal mining?” »Said Audin. “And how would the authorities treat the generations of coal miners and their families who have helped power China but have no other skill in the new economy?”


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