China’s Coal Economy Under Fire

Shanxi Province in the Chinese city of Taiyuan has historically been known as Coal Country. Here, coal doesn’t only put food on the table for millions. It also fuels the region’s culture. In fact, the city houses a national coal museum dedicated to teaching visitors the importance of coal to the entire country.

It is complete with a simulated mine, pieces of coal available in satin-lined gift boxes, and a 4D film covering the history of coal mining. The soft, Mandarin voice of the narrator notes that  “We should cherish the hard-won treasure. Saving coal.”

A tour guide in an elegant red coat tells visitors, “In reality, not only transportation, but everything you wear — your clothes, your shoes — has to do with coal.” A display featuring the photo of an SUV reads, “comfort and community — life can’t do without coal.”

And that may be the case for many in Shanxi province and other coal strongholds in China, as the country moves toward renewable fuel and a green agenda. In the last year, China has seen 1 million people lose their jobs in coal as mines shut down. 25 closed in 2016. And another million coal workers are expected to lose their jobs by 2020.  

So far, China is soldiering through the third year of its “War on Pollution.”

The news comes as a ray of sunshine for environmentalists. Shanxi province produced 14.7% fewer tons of coal in 2016 compared to the previous year. Coal as a share of China’s total energy consumption dropped by two percentage points in 2016 as the use of renewable energy increased.  

And to limit the fog that tends to engulf Taiyuan in the winter months, the city recently announced a winter ban on the sale, use and transport of coal except for large steel production plants and power plants.

In fact, the country’s environmental minister has promised to build “a beautiful China” by 2035.

But for the people who make a living off coal, the future doesn’t seem so bright. And even though the government has pledged to address massive unemployment with the creation of 13 million renewable energy jobs, the transition is slow in Shanxi where more people are expected to be tossed out of the coal mines.

“Making the transition from coal is not going to be an overnight thing for parts of China whose entire economy was based on coal,” said  Alvin Lin, climate and energy policy director in Beijing for the Natural Resources Defense Council, in an interview with NPR.  

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