China must begin to challenge its coal dependence, starting by dismantling particularly inefficient policies that have encouraged new coal construction.
Fifty-three miners remain missing or dead after a vast section of wall collapsed at an open-pit coal mine in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region on February 22. The wave of earth and rock – over a third of a kilometer wide by one geologist’s estimate – buried dozens of heavy mining vehicles and their operators in a landslide tens of meters deep.
The tragedy shines a spotlight on China’s coal mining sector, where hundreds of coal miners perish each year in accidents. Combined with the toll that coal use in China exacts upon public health, climate, and the environment, this accident reaffirms the wider benefits of shifting the Chinese economy away from coal-fired energy.
In the near term, China’s main challenge is peaking coal use in the power and heat sector, the dominant source of growth in coal demand and emissions. This will happen when annual growth in clean power generation exceeds growth in total power demand, an inflection point that China is on track to reach in the next few years, thanks to powerful policies to help expand wind and solar generation across the country at a breakneck pace.
Thereafter, the longer-term challenge is not just peaking but starting to rapidly reduce coal use. Coal is tightly integrated across China’s energy landscape, such that steep cuts to coal consumption aren’t as simple as a diet, but rather more of a heart surgery upon China’s power sector, industry, and economy.
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