Coal mine in Datong, Shanxi province, one of China's main coal mining provinces. Photo: Michael Chu via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
China clamps down on coal mining
4th January 2015
Beijing has called a halt to new coal mines and will close hundreds of existing operations, writes Kieran Cooke. The move reflects the slowing economy, falling energy demand, concerns over air pollution and climate change, and the massive rollout of renewables.
It's not just the climate: China is under strong domestic political pressure to reduce the pollution in Beijing and other industrial cities that are blighted by heavy coal smog from factories and power stations.
China says it will not approve any new coal mines for the next three years.
The country's National Energy Administration (NEA) says more than 1,000 existing mines will also be closed over the coming year, reducing total coal production by 70 million tonnes.
And speaking in Shanxi today, Premier Li Keqiang stated that the coal-rich province should prepare to diversify its economy away from coal.
It "should treasure its two valuable 'mines' of abundant coal resources and the Jin merchants' spirit", he said, in order to "transform Shanxi into a region less dependent on natural resources and more on human resources."
Analysts say this is the first time Beijing has put a ban on the opening of new mines: the move has been prompted both by falling demand for coal as a result of a slowing economy and by increasing public concern about hazardous levels of pollution, which have blanketed many cities across the country over recent months.
Beijing, a city of nearly 20 million, issued two red smog alerts - the most serious air pollution warning - in December, causing schools to close and prompting a warning to residents to stay indoors. A 2015 study estimated that air pollution - much of it from the widespread burning of coal - contributed to up to 1.6 million deaths each year in China.
Coal's share falling
The country is by far the world's largest producer and consumer of coal, the most polluting fossil fuel. Emissions from coal-fired power plants and other industrial concerns in China have made it the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, putting more climate-changing gases into the atmosphere each year than the US and the European Union combined.
In accordance with an agreement reached with the US in late 2014, and in line with pledges made at the recent Paris summit on climate change, China aims to radically cut back on coal use in future.
But it's not just the climate: another factor driving the reduction in coal burn is that China is under strong domestic political pressure to reduce the pollution in Beijing and other industrial cities that are blighted by heavy coal smog from factories and power stations.
In 2010, coal generated about 70% of China's total energy: last year that figure dropped to 64% as more large-scale investments in renewable energy sources came on stream. And there are good reasons to believe the fall in China's coal burn will continue.
China's coal consumption already fell by 2.9% in 2014, according to official Chinese energy data released last February, taking many energy analysts by surprise. But in fact the data confirmed earlier projections of a fall in coal use, based on the country's global records for wind and solar installations and increases in both economy-wide and power plant efficiency.
There is no guarantee that China's coal burn will continue to fall year by year, however it is widely agreed that it is likely to peak by 2020 - and it may already have done so.
There are also questions about whether the coal-mining regions of China - predominantly in the north of the country - will ever recover from the environmental devastation inflicted on them.
Vast swathes of land in Shanxi province, once the main coal production area, have been destroyed by mining: air and water pollution has caused a health crisis in many regions.
The province of Inner Mongolia - bigger than France and Spain combined - is now the main area for coal, accounting for about 25% of China's total production, most of it through open-cast mining. Copper, lead and uranium are also mined in the province.
Indigenous groups of nomadic herders say their lands are being destroyed and water sources poisoned by mining, with ponds full of toxins littering the countryside.
Concerns have also been raised about vast uranium deposits found near coal-mining areas. China's fast-growing nuclear industry has complained that vital uranium deposits might be contaminated by coal mining.
But others fear that uranium-contaminated coal could be being burned in power stations, showering radioactive dust on the surrounding countryside and its inhabitants.
Kieran Cooke writes for Climate News Network.
Additional reporting by The Ecologist.
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