Coal in China

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Entrance to a small coal mine in China, 1999
A coal shipment underway in China, 2007
An operating power plant in China, 2005

China is the largest producer and consumer of coal in the world and is the largest user of coal-derived electricity. The share of coal in the energy mix declined during the 2010s, falling from 80% in 2010 to 57.7% in 2019.[1][2]

Overall electricity consumption continued to rise in the 2010s, and new coal-fired power plants were constructed to help meet demand. But to curtail the pace of coal-fired power station construction, the National Energy Administration in 2017 canceled coal-fired power plant permits that would have amounted to 120 GW of future capacity.[3] However, local authorities seeking to create jobs resisted the efforts of central authorities to cut back. Despite central government attempts to clamp down on construction and shifting demand in the market to renewable, nuclear and natural gas sources, 135 GW of coal-power capacity was either permitted or under construction in China according to a US-based NGO in January 2020.[4]

Chinese construction firms are also building coal-fired power stations in other countries.[5]

Production[edit]

Coal production in China, 1950-2012
Production of coal within China by type.
For reference: GDP of the PRC. Coal production and usage demonstrates a hypersensitivity to economic changes.

Coal reserves[edit]

As of the end of 2014, China had 62 billion tons of anthracite and bituminous, and 52 billion tons of lignite quality coal. China ranks third in the world in terms of total coal reserves behind the United States and Russia.[6] Most coal reserves are located in the north and north-west of the country, which poses a large logistical problem for supplying electricity to the more heavily populated coastal areas.[7] At current levels of production, China has 30 years worth of reserves.[8]

Coal production[edit]

China is the largest coal producer in the world,[9] but as of 2015 falling coal prices resulted in layoffs at coal mines in the northeast.[10] The coal production 1829 Mtoe in 2018 is more than the total aggregate of next nine top coal producers and 46.7% of the total global production.[11]

Year Coal Production
(Billion short tons)
2000 1.00
2001 1.11
2002 1.42
2003 1.61
2004 2.00
2005 2.19
2006 2.38
2007 2.62
2008 2.72
2009 2.96
2014 3.89
2015
2016
2017 3.45[12]
Coal in China[a] (million metric tonnes)[13][14]
Production Net import Net available
2005 2,226 -47 2,179
2008 2,761 nd 2,761
2009 2,971 114 3,085
2010 3,162 157 3,319
2011 3,576 177 3,753
2012 3,549 278 3,827
2013 3,561 320 3,881
2014 3,640 292 3,932
2015 3,563 204 3,767
2016 3,268 282 3,550
2017 3,397 284 3,681
2018[b] 3,550 295 3,845
  1. ^ by IEA, exclude China Hong Kong
  2. ^ Provisional data


In 2011, seven Chinese coal mining companies produced 100 million metric tonnes of coal or more. These companies were Shenhua Group, China Coal Group, Shaanxi Coal and Chemical Industry, Shanxi Coking Coal Group, Datong Coal Mine Group, Jizhong Energy, and Shandong Energy.[15] The largest metallurgical coal producer was Shanxi Coking Coal Group.[16]

In 2015, official statistics revealed that previous statistics had been systematically underestimated by 17%, corresponding to the entire CO2 emissions of Germany.[17]

A coal mine near Hailar District.

China's largest open-pit coal mine is located in Haerwusu in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. It started production in 2008, and is operated by Shenhua Group. Its estimated coal output was forecast at 7 million tonnes in the fourth quarter of 2008. With a designed annual capacity of 20 million tonnes of crude coal, it will operate for approximately 79 years. Its coal reserves total about 1.73 billion tonnes. It is rich in low-sulfur steam coal.[18] Mines in Inner Mongolia are rapidly expanding production, with 637 million tons produced in 2009. Transport of coal from this region to seaports on China's coast has overloaded highways such as China National Highway 110 resulting in chronic traffic jams and delays.[19]

Use[edit]

The coal consumption was 1907 Mtoe in 2018 which is 50.2% of the global consumption.[11] China is also the second biggest importer of coal after India in 2018. China's coal consumption in 2010 was 3.2 billion metric tonnes per annum. The National Development and Reform Commission, which determines the energy policy of China, aims to keep China's coal consumption below 3.8 billion metric tonnes per annum.

During the first three quarters of 2009 China's coal consumption increased 9% from 2008 to 2.01 billion metric tons.[20]

The consumption of coal is largely in power production, aside from this, there is a lot of industry and manufacturing use along with a comparatively very small amount of domestic use.

IEA Breakdown of coal consumption (million short tons), 2007[21]
Use Anthracite Coking Coal Other Bituminous
Residential 0 0 71.7
Industry 24.6 16.3 342.1
Electricity Plants 0 0.2 1305.2
Heat Plants 0 0.19 153.7
Other Transformation[22] 0 359.2 84.0

Electricity generation[edit]

Coal power is distributed by the State Power Grid Corporation.

China's installed coal-based electrical capacity was 907 GW, or 77% of the total electrical capacity, in 2014.[23][24] The dominant technology in the country is coal pulverization in lieu of the more advanced and preferred coal gasification. China's move to a more open economy in the 1990s is cited as a reason for this, where the more immediately lucrative pulverization technology was favored by businesses. Furthermore, less than 15% of plants have desulphurization systems.[25] Carbon Tracker estimated in 2020 that the average coal fleet loss was about 4 USD/MWh and that about 60% of power stations were cashflow negative in 2018 and 2019.[26]

Industrial use[edit]

China's energy consumption is mostly driven by the industry sector, the majority of which comes from coal consumption.[27] One of the principal users is the steel industry in China.

Domestic use[edit]

Coal for domestic use (honeycomb briquettes) being transported by use of a tricycle, 1997.

In cities the domestic burning of coal is no longer permitted. In rural areas coal is still permitted to be used by Chinese households, commonly burned raw in unvented stoves. This fills houses with high levels of toxic metals leading to bad Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). In addition, people eat food cooked over coal fires which contains toxic substances. Toxic substances from coal burning include arsenic, fluorine, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and mercury. Health issues are caused which include severe arsenic poisoning, skeletal fluorosis (over 10 million people afflicted in China), esophageal and lung cancers, and selenium poisoning.[28]

In 2007 the use of coal and biomass (collectively referred to as solid fuels) for domestic purposes was nearly ubiquitous in rural households but declining in urban homes. At that time, estimates put the number of premature deaths due to indoor air pollution at 420,000 per year, which is even higher than due to outdoor air pollution, estimated at around 300,000 deaths per year. The specific mechanisms for death cited have been respiratory illnesses, lung cancer, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), weakening of the immune system, and reduction in lung function. Measured pollution levels in homes using solid fuels generally exceeded China's IAQ air quality standards. Technologies exist to improve indoor air quality, notably the installation of a chimney and modernized bioenergy but need more support to make a larger difference.[29]

International trade[edit]

China became a net importer of coal in 2008. As of 2018 the largest supplier of coal to China is Indonesia followed by Australia.[30]

Carbon footprint[edit]

In 2014 the carbon emissions from China made up about 28.8% of the world total, 10.4 billion tons.CO2 emissions [31]

It is believed that a continued increase in coal power in China may undermine international initiatives to decrease carbon emissions such as the Kyoto Protocol, which called for a decrease of 483 million tons by 2012. In the same time frame, it is expected that coal plants in China will have increased CO2 emissions by 1,926 million tons — over 4 times the proposed reduction.[32]

Fossil fuel related CO2 emissions in China, 1998–2004 (in millions of metric tons of CO2)[33]
1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004
CO2 from coal 2,363 2,287 2,339 2,472 2,518 2,731 3,809
CO2 from natural gas 47 51 57 64 69 72 83
CO2 from petroleum 531 566 636 653 686 737 816
Total CO2 from all fossil fuels 2,940 2,905 3,033 3,190 3,273 3,541 4,707

Efforts to reduce emissions[edit]

Air pollution in China kills 750,000 people every year, according to a study by the World Bank.[34] Issued in response to record-high levels of air pollution in 2012 and 2013, the State Council's September 2013 Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Air Pollution reiterated the need to reduce coal's share in China's energy mix to 65% by 2017.[35] Amidst growing public concern, social unrest incidents are growing around the country. For example, in December 2011 the government suspended plans to expand a coal-fired power plant in the city of Haimen after 30,000 local residents staged a violent protest against it, because "the coal-fired power plant was behind a rise in the number of local cancer patients, environmental pollution and a drop in the local fishermen's catch."[36]

In addition to environmental and health costs at home, China's dependence on coal is cause for concern on a global scale. Due in large part to the emissions caused by burning coal, China is now[when?] the number one producer of carbon dioxide, responsible for a full quarter of the world's CO2 output.[37] The country has taken steps towards battling climate change by pledging to cut its carbon intensity (the amount of CO2 produced per dollar of economic output) by about 40 percent by 2020, compared to 2005 levels.[37] Reuters reports that "emissions and coal consumption will continue to rise through the 2020s, even though at a slower rate, barring a major intervention including a shift to cleaner burning gas from coal" - in other words, "meeting the carbon intensity target will require a significant change in trajectory for carbon emissions and coal consumption."[38] To that end, China has announced a plan to invest 2.3 trillion yuan ($376 billion) through 2015 in energy saving and carbon emission-reduction projects.[38]

China's first coal-fired power station employing the integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC), which is a coal gasification process that turns coal into a gas before burning it, is planned to begin operations in 2009 at Tianjin near Beijing. Developed under a project called GreenGen, this $5.7 bn 650 MW plant will be a joint venture between a group of state-owned enterprises and Peabody Energy.[39] In addition to these coal gasification projects, it is worth noting that on average, China's coal plants work more efficiently than those in the United States, due to their relative youth.[6]

In September 2011, the Chinese government's Ministry of Environmental Protection announced a new emission standard for thermal power plants, for NOx and mercury, and a tightening of SO2 and soot standards. New coal power plants have a set date of the beginning of 2012 and for old power plants by mid-2014. They must also abide by a new limit on mercury by beginning of 2015. It is estimated such measures could bring about a 70% reduction in NOx emissions from power plants.[40]

In 2012, industrial conglomerate China Wanxiang Holdings signed a $1.25 billion deal with American company GreatPoint Energy to build a large-scale plant using GreatPoint's catalytic hydromethanation process of coal gasification. The technology converts coal into natural gas and enables the recovery of contaminants in coal, petroleum coke and biomass as useful byproducts. Most importantly, nearly all of the CO2 produced in the process is captured as a pure stream suitable for sequestration or enhanced oil recovery.[41] The total project will cost an estimated $20 – 25 billion and will supply a trillion cubic feet of natural gas.[42] This represents a massive leap in the scale of domestic production for China, which last year produced only 107 billion cubic feet of natural gas.[43] The deal includes an equity investment of $420 million, the largest ever by a Chinese corporation into a venture-capital-funded U.S. company, according to industry tracker VentureSource.[41]

China is the first country with a single party government structure to take steps towards developing a nationwide Emissions Trading System.[44]

Beijing[edit]

China decided to close the last four coal-fired power and heating plants out of Beijing's municipal area, replacing them with gas-fired power plants, in an effort to improve air quality in the capital. The four plants, owned by Huaneng Power International, Datang International Power Generation Co Ltd, China Shenhua Energy and Beijing Jingneng Thermal Power Co Ltd, had a total power generating capacity of about 2.7 gigawatts (GW).[45] All of them have been closed as of March 2019.[citation needed]

Coal mine fires[edit]

It is estimated that coal mine fires in China burn about 200 million kg of coal each year. Small illegal fires are frequent in the northern region of Shanxi. Local miners may use abandoned mines for shelter and intentionally set such fires. One study estimates that this translates into 360 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, which is not included in the previous emissions figures.[46]

North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region has announced plans to extinguish fires in the region by 2012. Most of these fires were caused by bad mining practices combined with bad weather. 200 million yuan (29.3 million USD) has been budgeted to this effect.[47]

Accidents and deaths[edit]

In 2003, the death rate per million tons of coal mined in China was 130 times higher than in the United States, 250 times higher than in Australia (open cast mines) and 10 times higher than the Russian Federation (underground mines). However the safety figures in the major state owned coal enterprises were significantly better. Even so, in 2007 China produced one third of the world's coal but had four fifths of coal fatalities.[48] It is also important to mention that China's coal mining industry resorts to forced labor according to a 2014 U.S. Department of Labor report on child labor and forced labor around the world,[49] and that these workers are all the more exposed to the dangers of such activities.

Pulmonary disease[edit]

Disability-adjusted life year for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease per 100,000 inhabitants in 2004.[50]
  no data
  less than 110
  110–220
  220–330
  330–440
  440–550
  550–660
  660–770
  770–880
  880–990
  990–1100
  1100–1350
  more than 1350

While not directly attributable, many more deaths are resultant from dangerous emissions from coal plants. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), linked to exposure to fine particulates, SO2, and cigarette smoke among other factors, accounted for 26% of all deaths in China in 1988.[51] A report by the World Bank in cooperation with the Chinese government found that about 750,000 people die prematurely in China each year from air pollution. Later, the government asked the researchers to soften the conclusions.[52]

Many direct deaths happen in coal mining and processing. In 2007, 1,084 out of the 3,770 workers who died were from gas blasts. Small mines (comprising 90% of all mines) are known to have far higher death rates, and the government of China has banned new coal mines with a high gas danger and a capacity below 300,000 tons in an effort to reduce deaths a further 20% by 2010. The government has also vowed to close 4,000 small mines to improve industry safety.[53] A total of 2,657,230 people worked in state owned coal mines at the end of 2006.[54]

Accidents[edit]

As of 2009, the government has been cracking down on unregulated mining operations, which in 2009 accounted for nearly 80 percent of the country's 16,000 mines. The closure of about 1,000 dangerous small mines in 2008 helped to cut in half the average number of miners killed, to about six a day, in the first six months of 2009, according to the government. Major gas explosions in coal mines remain a problem, though the number of accidents and deaths have gradually declined year by year, the chief of the State Administration of Work Safety, Luo Lin, told a national conference in September 2009.[55]

In the first nine months of 2009, China's coal mines had eleven major accidents with 303 deaths, with gas explosions the leading cause, according to the central government. Most accidents are blamed on failures to follow safety rules, including a lack of required ventilation or fire control equipment.[55]

Unofficial estimates often estimate death tolls at twice the official number reported by the government.[56] Since 1949 over 250,000 coal mining deaths have been recorded[when?].[57] However, since 2002, the death toll is gradually declining while the coal production is rapidly rising, doubling over this same period[when?].

By year[edit]

A Chinese coal miner at the Jin Hua Gong Mine
Year Number of accidents Deaths Death rate per
million tons of coal
2000 2,863 5,798 5.80
2001 3,082 5,670 5.11
2002 4,344 6,995 4.93
2003 4,143 6,434 4.00
2004 3,639 6,027 3.01
2005 3,341 5,986 2.73
2006 2,945 4,746 1.99
2007 3,770 1.44
2008 3,210 1.18
2009 1,616 2,631 0.89
2010 2,433[58]
2011 1,973[59]
2012 1,301
2013 1,049

Source: State Administration of Work Safety[60]

Technology export[edit]

As of 2018 China is exporting technology, for example for coal mining in Turkey.[61]

International opinions[edit]

In 2008, Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, and The Energy Foundation published The True Cost of Coal, a report that said that by-products of coal burning such as water pollution, air pollution and human costs such as mining deaths are costing China an additional 1.7 trillion yuan per year, or more than 7% of GDP. They recommended that China increase the price of coal by a tax of 23% to reflect the true costs of China's reliance on coal.[62]

Other commentators have pointed out that China has been taking a role as a leader in making use of coal as an electricity source more clean and responsible. For instance, the country built new ultra-supercritical coal plants (~44% efficiency) before the United States.[63] China's coal fleet has currently (2017) an average efficiency of 38.6% compared to the US with 37.4%.[64] . In 2009, China required companies building new plants to retire an old plant for every new one built.[65]

In 2015, an IMF study showed that China has the largest cost of air pollution effects in the world.[66]

In 2020 UN secretary general António Guterres said that China should stop building coal-fired power stations.[67]


See also[edit]

Other countries

References[edit]

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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

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