When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, its annual coal production was just over 30 million tons. China’s coal production is now the largest in the world. In 2008, coal production was approximately 2.7 billion tons, roughly 40% of total world coal production. By 2011, its output was approximately 3.5 billion tons, a figure 3.5 times that of the next largest coal producer, the U.S.A., according to the BP Statistics Review of World Energy. The sector employs close to 5 million people, if you only include larger enterprises, and if enterprises of all sizes are included, the figure is close to double this. However, it is difficult to be exact with such figures.

Between 70 and 80% of China’s electricity is generated by coal.  Its percentage in the country’s energy make up is being very slowly reduced, stabilizing at around 70% over the last years. However, the overall volume of coal consumption is continually increasing as the country’s energy demand goes up. The government is engaged in very serious efforts to “clean up” the sector as much as possible, within the constraints set by the fact that coal simply is, and will continue to be, the most “dirty” energy source around, and has emphasized R&D for advanced technologies. This includes technologies such as coal gasification, processing and conversion, integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC), supercritical and ultra-supercritical power generation, and large-scale circulating fluidized bed (CFB), and coal gasification-based poly-generation technology. As the world’s biggest coal producer, and having one of the largest proven coal reserves in the world (after Russia and the USA), China’s coal needs are mostly met from domestic supply. However, it is also importing increasing amounts from Indonesia and Australia.

Safety is considered a very major area for government intervention. The official number of worker deaths in accidents reached a peak of almost 7,000 in 2002. One of the main reasons for this was due to the number of small mines in operation, due to China’s history of developing village level industries, combined with the rapidly increasing demand. The government has successfully brought this number down, quite dramatically in recent years, through a twin process of closing smaller unsafe mines, and through mechanization. However, there are still large numbers of deaths of miners (approximately 2500 in 2010), substantially higher than most other coal mining countries in the world. Also, there is sometimes a problem of the smaller mines being reopened due to increased demand for coal. Frequently, a strong central-local government tension exists, as many local government officials are close to the owners of the small coal companies.

Although before the Chinese revolution there was major labour unrest amongst coal miners, and there continue to be sporadic strikes, it seems that there is not a high level of organization amongst workers, and that it is one of the very difficult sectors to organize in. Reports are sketchy, but there have been numerous strikes involving thousands of coal miners in Shanxi Province, Guizhou Province throughout the last years.  At least some of the mines, especially the larger and more modern state owned ones, have high level of training and rely on a professionalized and relatively well paid technical workforce. In such cases, health and safety regulations are strongly enforced.  Different levels of safety conditions exist alongside one another. In some of the modern mining areas in major mining areas, such as Datong, housing is being slowly improved and modernized, partly in an effort to improve conditions and partly because of subsidence. Subsistence is a major area of concern in some of the areas where extensive mining has already occurred.

Other major areas of concern are the environmental and land problems caused by coal. Again, the government is very much aware of these problems, and treats them as a major area of concern. In addition to making an enormous contribution to climate change, through high levels of CO2 emissions, the local impacts of coal use in China are very damaging. This includes: dust , both near the mining and along the transport route; subsidence from mines, especially in areas with a long mining history, such as in Shanxi and Inner Mongolia; water contamination; respiratory and other health problems of workers and nearby communities; and land conflicts with ethnic minorities in Inner Mongolia. Another key issue is that the coal sector takes up an enormous share of the country’s transport infrastructure, as the coal is not mined at the geographical location as where it is needed for consumption. This means that there are huge traffic problems due to trucks and trains transporting it.  Major delays, often of several days or even weeks, are routine. At times this makes it difficult to ensure supply.

The question of ownership, control, and pricing in the coal sector are all of great importance. In recent years, there has been a massive process of concentration of companies, led by the government. State owned enterprises have grown in size, at least in some locations, such as in Datong, and the major players operated in multiple locations. Many small companies have been closed by legal orders. Since around 2002, Coal has become increasingly profitable, which encourages increased extraction, from both national state enterprises and private enterprises. Speculation of coal price is becoming important and quite influential on wider economic development. At the same time, the electricity companies claim to be near bankruptcy due to high prices. The central government is going to great efforts to maintain a high degree of stability for the coal price, as it fears the political instability that is likely to result if the price becomes too high. This is becoming a big political battle. Expansion of Chinese mining companies into foreign markets is still in early stage, though likely to intensify and accelerate in the near future, as Chinese companies are already beginning to buy foreign companies in order to get hold of the technology.

Despite, and probably also because of, the fact that coal plays such an important part in China’s energy mix, there are very few “civil society” organizations working on it, either in relation to energy, or workers, or the environment. Even though it is incredibly important and has many serious social and environmental problems associated with it, it is a very difficult area for organizations to work on, due to strong governmental control and lack of transparency in the sector. Owing to the combination of the sheer quantity of coal that is used, the quantity of coal that exists in China, the political and economic power of the industry relative to other branches of the energy sector and the country’s massive dependency on coal, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible to talk about phasing out coal production and use in China. The only strategy that is widely perceived as viable is to look for ways to make it both safer and cleaner, to the extent that is possible

Coal and the Environment

The following articles deal with the environmental and the health impacts of coal. These are the most recent documents which exist in this field, and are all from Greenpeace China, which is the main civil society organization working on the environmental impacts of coal. A particular focus is on the question of how the price of coal and be made to incorporate the social and environmental costs.

Coal and workers

The following three documents deal in considerable depth with questions relating to workers in the coal sector, and contain political and historical analysis of how the sector has evolved and continues to evolve. They offer important analyses for a general understanding of coal in China, and of the changes brought about by the restructuring of the last twenty years. Although there have been important changes in the last few years and the documents are not completely up to date, they nonetheless provide a solid basis for understanding the background to understanding these recent changes.

Coal, from the point of view of international and regional policy makers and think tanks

The following articles provide analysis of the Chinese coal sector within a wider perspective of coal globally, looking at the industrial, institutional and  commercial aspects of China’s coal. The focus is not, or at least not primarily, on the social and environmental conflicts relating to coal, and nor are the articles in this section necessarily sympathetic to such purposes. However ,the comprehensive  global overview provided is necessary in order to situate any analysis of such conflicts.