DATONG, China — The walls and ceiling of the Nanshan mine shimmer black, carved straight into a 200 million-year-old coal seam running 1,300 feet underground. Black veins of Jurassic-era coal deposits still thread Shanxi province in China's north, enriching public coffers and keeping generations of miners steadily employed.
Last year, China committed to going carbon-neutral by 2060, an ambitious undertaking for a country that still relies on coal for more than half its energy needs. The country has invested heavily in solar, wind and nuclear energy. Yet coal-fired heavy industry still made up about 37% of all its economic activity last year, and some provinces are even planning to increase coal-fired power generation.
These contradictions and the slow, convoluted transition away from coal are already being felt in Datong, an ancient walled city in the heart of China's coal country in Shanxi.
There, miners continue to pump out coal even as the state throttles new mine licenses and funds solar panel farms nearby. Last year, a Shanxi state merger created one of the world's biggest coal companies, pushing out smaller mines as environmental protection rules are enforced more strictly.
"When you are born near the mines, you are destined to go down into them. There is nothing but mine work here," says Zhang Si, a retired miner.
"Coal is still the king"
Coal mining began in Datong as early as 1,500 years ago, when people began excavating shallow deposits, using crude, handheld tools and lowering canaries to detect hazardous gases. They burned coal for heat. Industrial mining took off after China's economic reforms in the late 1970s, and by the 1990s, the city had 287 mines in production.
In the decades since, coal has offered steady pay for millions of miners. In 2015, Shanxi province employed more than 930,000 miners, a quarter of the country's total number.
In 1970, a young Zhang was recruited as a front line miner by the Jinhuagong Mine. He still lives nearby. "Selling coal was great. There was so much and the country needed it," he reminisces.
His son followed in his footsteps, delving into the mine's deepest recesses to ferry coal to the surface. His daughters work as nurses for a local coal subsidiary.
But mining has exacted a massive environmental cost. Until the mid-2000s, Shanxi had some of China's most polluted cities. Residents burned chunks of coal in the open air to keep warm during frigid winters.
Business was good, though; Datong's abundant coal fed steel and aluminum plants all across the country. As of 2019, coal-powered energy accounted for more than 57% of China's energy consumption. In 2020 alone, China added 38.4 gigawatts of coal-fired power to its capacity — more than three times the combined amount built that year in the rest of the world.
To boost China's post-pandemic economy, policy makers have even relaxed rules to facilitate more local investment in coal power plants.
"The fact is coal is still the king here in this country," says Li Shuo, who follows carbon emissions and energy policy in China for Greenpeace East Asia.
Ambitious goals, few concrete plans
So far, China's top leaders haven't specified how they plan to draw down reliance on coal.
"China will strictly control coal-fired power generation projects and limit the increase in coal consumption," China's President Xi Jinping said at an online climate summit convened by President Biden earlier this year. But he shied away from giving a more detailed energy pledge.
When Xi made an official visit to Datong last May, he plumped for a photo opportunity next to ancient Buddhist grottoes and local poverty alleviation offices, rather than a mine.
Contrary to energy policy analysts' expectations, China's 14th Five-Year Plan, an economic blueprint released this year, does not cap coal reliance or power use. The plan does aim to increase non-fossil fuel energy from the current level of 15.3% to power one-fifth of the country's expected total energy usage by 2025. And it aims to continue reducing carbon emissions — but only maintaining, rather than accelerating, existing trends over the previous five years.
"One narrative is generated by high-level political announcements to achieve zero carbon within the next four decades," says Li. "The other narrative is that we will still need to use coal because it ensures energy security. Which one of these two narratives prevail in the end?"
Currently, China appears to be pursuing both paths, in order to meet growing domestic demand for electricity. Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi, two of China's major coal-producing provinces, will increase energy production — much of it coal-fired — by 1% and 4% per year. To make its commitment to go carbon-neutral in less than four decades, China will need other provinces to increase their capacity in renewable energy.
In Datong, the mixed legacy of coal mining suggests coal will be ever present in China's near future, albeit in limited quantities.
Last year, the provincial government ordered five of its biggest coal companies to merge into one state-run conglomerate, the Jinneng Holding Group. The group has a combined output of 420 million tons of coals a year, according to an industry association, making it one of the world's biggest coal producers.
The merger is supposed to make the bloated coal sector more efficient and keep coal prices high by coordinating output. In practice, miners say that the merger has resulted in less work as mines reduce shifts because national and local environmental regulations have tightened, making it difficult to get new licenses and expensive to open new mines and upgrade existing ones.
"Some days, the mine isn't open at all and we are not allowed to talk about the closure. The coal train here used to run at least once a day. Now it's more like once every seven or eight days," says Zhang Puyuan, a conductor who helps oversee a cargo train ferrying coal out of the Jinhua mine, one of the five merged.
Smaller mines, like the nearby Sitai Mine, are cutting back on production. They have exhausted most of the easy-to-reach coal deposits, and no new licenses are being given to dig new mines. Younger miners have been given the option to retrain and move to bigger, state-run mines, like the Tashan mine, the largest in the province.
A miner surnamed Zhang (and no relation to the previous Zhangs) is 56 and just a few years away from retiring. He did not want NPR to use his full name because of political sensitivities around discussing crucial economic trends like mine closure. Because he does the most dangerous work of going into the deepest tunnels, he makes a good living — more than $1,700 a month, about twice the national average in salary. He is hoping his university-age son will decide to return home and work in the mines as well.
"I think my son will be the last generation of miners," Zhang says.
But his son might not have that option. Nearby, the local government has already built a huge solar farm on the hilly slopes of a former mine.
For China to meet its goals in reducing carbon emissions, one more generation of burning coal may be one generation too many.
Amy Cheng contributed research from Datong, China.