CHINA:

Coal towns remain the heartbeat of China's economy

The fourth part of an occasional series about China.

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.

We shut down, and 'the lights go out in Beijing'

They claim pride in helping to keep the nation's economic engine purring. "If the coal mine shuts down, the lights go out in Beijing," says Gao Ailing, who said he has been working at the mine outside Datong 20 years. Standing by the exit as men with streaked black faces trickle out, Gao says he's familiar with the global climate change policy debate. He sees U.S. insistence that China cut back emissions as inherently unfair. "America wants other people to do more, but it hasn't done anything itself," Gao says.

China definitely wants to do more. Experts say about half of all the new housing being built worldwide is in China now, with U.S. State Department envoy Todd Stern noting that the country builds the equivalent of "two Bostons' worth of housing" each month. That in itself, analysts say, is largely responsible for the doubling of cement production there in recent years.

Add to the mix a rapidly rising middle class yearning for dishwashers, microwaves, bigger TVs and cars, and analysts say China isn't leaving coal anytime soon.

"China is going to be a low-cost manufacturing hub for decades," said Deborah Seligsohn, a consultant in Beijing for the World Resources Institute think tank. Shanxi province and other areas where coal is king -- and will be for the foreseeable future -- are "the other side of the energy story in China," acknowledged Julian Wong, who writes a blog called the "Green Leap Forward."

"Wind energy is developing fast, but coal-fired power is developing even faster," said Ailun Yang, Greenpeace China's climate director.

Still, changes are coming -- even to cities like Datong.

Once the filthiest city, Datong cleans up

Five years ago, Datong made it to the top of China's State Environmental Protection Administration's list of filthiest cities. Though the city was ordered to clean up its act, its air only worsened. Toward the end of 2005, its pollution index hit 350: red-alert territory.

But on a recent day in August, the sky was clear, offering little hint of the unbreathable air of which Beijing residents had warned.

Residents and analysts say change has come about not out of concern about climate change, but because of international public opinion. The government went on a rampage before the 2008 Olympics, forcing hundreds of coal plants, as well as steel, cement and petrochemical plants and others, to shut down in order to contain pollution. The mines, too, went largely quiet in a countrywide effort to avert embarrassing accidents. Yet to the surprise of many here, when the games left China, industry did not return with a vengeance.

"These few years, it's become much better," said Zhang Zhao, a taxi driver who said he used to work as a driver for one of the mines.

Meanwhile, Datong also is trying something new. Already the gateway to 500-year-old Buddhist grottoes and a breathtaking monastery hanging on the wall of a nearby gorge, the city is busily renovating its old city, hoping to boost tourism in the region.

Seligsohn said the complete story of the slow transformation of Datong, while not based in concern for fossil fuel pollution, still underscores an important transformation that could fundamentally alter China's emissions trajectory. State enterprise reform and the dash to shutter antiquated plants in the run-up to the Olympics are only part of the story, she said.

The other part is recent national policies, like the government's target to reduce energy intensity 20 percent by 2010 and a separate program that directs the country's 1,000 dirtiest industries to markedly improve efficiency.

Shutdowns continued past the Olympics

"The national policies are important, because it's keeping these things shut down," Seligsohn said. "If it was just for the Olympics, things would have reopened the next day."

Whether Datong represents a sign that China is interested in rebalancing its economy and shifting away from dirty manufacturing in favor of service industries like tourism remains open for debate. Wong, whose blog for the liberal Center for American Progress focuses on China's clean energy development, said it's a conversation Chinese leaders are just starting to have.

"That's certainly discussed and talked about. It's one of the strategies of moving toward a low-carbon society," he said. "It's not going to happen overnight, and it's going to take a while for the transition to happen. But they're definitely thinking about it."

In the meantime, energy analysts and political leaders in both countries are paying attention to what can be done in the short term.

Energy efficiency is one answer. All of China's heavy industries have strict targets to meet by next year in order for the country to reach its overall intensity target.

Qi Ye, the deputy director of the China Sustainable Energy Program in Beijing, said recently that that's not enough. A greenhouse gas intensity target, he argued, "will help promote renewable energy and reduce the use of coal."

China already has put $440 billion of economic stimulus money this year into greening up its energy supplies. And under an announcement yesterday between U.S. President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing, the two countries will start major cooperative efforts on energy efficiency, hybrid vehicles and at least four specific carbon capture and sequestration projects in China.

Meanwhile, not everyone in Datong is eager for change. Standing outside his mud home with a group of neighbors, a man who identified himself only as Liang said he's hoping some of the closed mines reopen. Originally from China's Inner Mongolia region, Liang came to Datong about 10 years ago to work in one of the area's smaller mines and works only sporadically. He's eager, he said, to move into one of the hundreds of new apartment buildings springing up in and around the city.

He's not impressed by the seemingly cleaner air, either, telling a visitor, "You came at a good time. If you came during dry season, that would be another story." As for the need to prevent catastrophic climate change, Liang said, "That's what the scientists say, but we're ordinary people. We don't care about those things. We want to work."