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Coal towns remain the heartbeat of China's economy

DATONG, China -- The black metal gates clang shut, and about a dozen miners lean against the grate in blue overalls and headlamps fastened atop yellow hard hats.

The ride down feels endless, dropping nearly a thousand feet into the bowels of the Jing Hua Gong mine. Once at the bottom, the elevator door opens and the men stoop and squeeze into a small locomotive. Like a bleak Disney ride, the train chugs through the darkness, passing decades of standing coal seams, taking the miners almost 2 miles into the center of the mountain.

Amid the glowing reports of new wind farms and investment in solar photovoltaics throughout China, it's easy to forget that cities like Datong are still the heart of this country. Located about 150 miles west of Beijing in Shanxi province, this city is the coal capital of China. The Jing Hua Gong mine on the city's outskirts produces about 4.5 million tons of coal each year -- in a country that produces more than 2.4 billion tons each year, according to the World Coal Institute.

Manufacturing, especially of energy-intensive goods like cement and steel, is the driver of China's explosive economic growth. Even in the midst of a global recession, the country's industrial production has continued steadily.

Nothing is small about this country's long sojourn with coal. It accounts for more than 70 percent of China's energy consumption, and the country continues to develop it at a rapid pace. According to the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration, coal energy produced in China will double over the next 20 years or so. Clean alternatives like wind, hydro, solar and nuclear are growing fast, but they will amount to less than a third of the country's total installed capacity by 2020.

The men wear no safety equipment, not an unusual sight in a country that experiences more than 1,000 mine deaths each year. Now that China has smashed its "iron rice bowl" system of guaranteed lifetime employment, miners say that many even pay hefty bribes for the privilege of toiling six-hour rotating shifts deep below the Earth's surface.

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About This Report

ClimateWire examines China’s clean energy revolution as well as its deep-seated dependence on coal, and explores what role China might play as nations begin to form a global emissions pact.

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