The Emperors King Coal, part 2 – China Coal Today
Part 2 out of 6, in this “King Coal” series by Juha Tuominen. Juha is a foreigner living in Beijing since 2008. Having worked several years in central government-controlled industries such as energy, this series of articles also reflects the writer’s own experiences and observations on how things work or do not work in China.
China Coal Today
China is the world’s largest coal producer and producer of coal-fired electricity. While the exact amount of installed coal energy production capacity varies almost every year, and different sources state slightly different numbers, China’s coal power fleet is close to one Terawatt. Coal’s share at the country’s energy mix at the moment stands at around 60 percent. After the cultural revolution, China’s coal consumption has been steadily growing for some 40 years. Due to reforming and restriction actions that will be discussed later on, the first time China coal consumption declined year on year was 2014. But this development lasted only three years as 2017 saw a growth of some 3 percent compared to the previous year, and the growth is set to continue. According to most optimistic estimations, China’s coal usage would be topped next year (2020), but most likely growth will extend far beyond that. This is because the country is building its energy strategy all the way to 2050 with coal being a firm pillar with over 30 percent share of energy still at that time.
But coal is not used only for energy and industry. With a large land area inside Chinese borders, there are several climate zones, including borderline arctic winters. Back in the 1950s the central government, when pondering about residential heating solutions, drew a line on the country’s map dividing the country to north and south. The provinces north of this later named “heating line” would then get to enjoy central heating. Chinese households have traditionally been heated by coal, especially in rural areas. While there are over 400 million people enjoying central heating, rural households consume some 70 percent of the total residential coal consumption. In terms of air quality, this makes residential heating a big issue locally. While the Chinese metropoles such as Beijing and Tianjin have upgraded their heating systems, rural areas still use so-called scattered coal, which is low in efficiency and has over 17 times more emission pollutants than coal to electricity.
Coal mining is perhaps more socioeconomically significant to China than other coal industries or at least used to be. The country has the world’s third-largest reserves, behind the US and Russia. Still a few years ago coal was mined practically in all provinces except Hainan Island and Tibet, thus having a significant impact on local economies. Data on the Chinese mining industry is extremely difficult to acquire, and it is unreliable. In 2015 National Bureau of Statistics estimated about 4,4 million Chinese being employed in the mining sector. It has been a particularly attractive industry in rural areas as earnings for low skilled workers in mines are considerably higher than agriculture. But mining has also been flourishing in criminal activities as unauthorized and illegal mines have been a real headache for the government. Although technology and conditions have improved during the last decade or so, safety still remains a big issue in Chinese mines. Some estimates state that in Shanxi province alone, the main coal mining province of the country with over 20 percent of the national output, over a thousand miners die annually either in the mines or as a result of health issues brought on by poor conditions.
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