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China has committed to go carbon neutral by 2060. That goal would be hard for any country to meet, but how do you do it with a gigantic economy that gets more than half of its power by burning coal? NPR's Emily Feng traveled to the heart of China's coal country to see how the transition is going.
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EMILY FENG, BYLINE: To get into this abandoned coal mine, NPR's producer Amy Cheng and I take this trolley car that slowly descends down a 400-meter mine shaft. Underground, we find ourselves in a cold alien world. The walls are made from a shimmery black. We're walking through a coal seam made from rotting plants and dead dinosaurs from the Jurassic age. Now, in the age of humans, the coal is a major source of energy and wealth for Datong, an ancient city in northern Shanxi province. For decades, the crumbly black stuff employed multiple generations of families at hundreds of state and private mines.
ZHANG SHI: (Through interpreter) When you're born near the mines, you're destined to go down into them. There's nothing but mine work here.
FENG: This is Zhang Shi, a retired miner who spends his days gardening. His son has followed in his footsteps as what they call a frontline miner, going down the shafts each day to ferry coal up to the surface. Zhang still remembers the heyday of coal mining in Shanxi province when it was the national producer for coal.
ZHANG SHI: (Through interpreter) Selling coal was great. There was so much, and the country needed it. Now the country is reforming, and it doesn't need coal. That's when the coal becomes worthless.
FENG: Up until the mid-2000s, Shanxi had some of the most polluted cities in China. Its abundant coal seams fed steel and aluminum plants all across the country. Residents burned chunks of coal to keep warm during frigid winters. Now coal isn't as lucrative, though China still burns a lot of it.
LI SHUO: The fact is, coal is still the king here in this country.
FENG: Li Shuo tracks climate and energy policy in China for Greenpeace. China is still building new coal-fired plants, and more than 56% of China's energy mix is coal fired. But that's down from 72% just 15 years ago, a time when heavy industry and manufacturing required cheap, dirty energy. Li says now China is investing heavily in renewable energy.
LI: We are the largest manufacturing investor and deployer of clean technology, such as wind and solar. We're also making quite a lot of progress when it comes to electric vehicles.
FENG: Yet coal is still very attractive. This April, a top energy policymaker admitted coal is still the most stable energy source, and it will likely continue to dominate the country's energy structure. And China's newest five-year economic plan set this year did not set clear coal reduction goals. Here's Li Shuo again.
LI: How can we slow down the expansion of coal, both in terms of, you know, the expansion of coal-fired power plants but also the overall coal consumption? I think that's still going to be the biggest issue for China's energy transition.
FENG: But back in Datong, miners are already feeling the economic slowdown as China cuts back on coal. Last year, the government ordered the province's five biggest state coal companies to merge to increase efficiency. But it's meant less work and less money for miners.
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FENG: The coal that comes out of the mines ends up on a train like this one headed for a processing plant that was part of the merger. Conductor Zhang Puyuan says the merger has dramatically changed how smaller mines work in Shanxi.
ZHANG PUYUAN: (Through interpreter) Some days, the mine isn't open at all, and we're not allowed to talk about the closure. The coal train used to run at least once a day. Now it's more like once every seven or eight days.
FENG: Smaller mines like this one are getting ready to shut down. Near the mine, the local government has already built a huge solar farm, a sign of the times to come. And so families that have been in the coal industry for the last 70 years are preparing for the end.
ZHANG: (Through interpreter) All the coal has been mined. There's very little left, and you can't tunnel deeper. Money is really hard to earn these days.
FENG: This miner, surnamed Zhang as well, didn't want to give his full name, citing economic sensitivities around closing mines. He's 56 and just a few years away from retiring. Because he does the most dangerous work of going into the mines deepest tunnels, he makes a good living, but it's exhausting work.
ZHANG: (Through interpreter) Every month, I only take one day off. The less you work, the less money you make.
FENG: Zhang's son is studying in university but is considering returning home to work in the mines.
ZHANG: (Through interpreter) I estimate that my son will be the last generation of miners.
FENG: But for China to make its goals in reducing carbon emissions, one more generation of burning coal might be one generation too long. Emily Feng, NPR News, Datong, China.
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