‘Smart mines’ embed coal in China's future as it remains world’s biggest emitter of pollutants

Chinese Coal

Coal unloaded from the Bulk China freighter. China is the world's biggest emitter of the pollutants driving climate change.

Photo credit: File | AFP

What you need to know:

  • China is the world's biggest emitter of the pollutants driving climate change

One hundred metres underground inside a pit in northern China, miners extract lumps of coal with the flick of a finger on a smartphone, as the country tries to drag the traditionally dangerous and dirty work into the digital era.

The Hongliulin "intelligent mine" in coal-belt Shaanxi province is a flagship facility in a drive to modernise China's thousands of coal mines, even as the nation pledges to peak greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. 

China is the world's biggest emitter of the pollutants driving climate change, and its promises to curb them are essential to keeping global temperature rises below two degrees Celsius.

But mine digitalisation -- which aims to improve safety and productivity -- shows the continued importance of coal in a country that last year produced nearly 60 percent of its electricity from the fossil fuel.

Smart mines are common in other coal-producing nations like Canada, but China has lagged and now the government is aiming to achieve basic digitalisation of all mines by 2035.

On a tour organised by telecoms giant Huawei -- whose technology underpins the changes at Hongliulin -- AFP journalists saw sensors, smart cameras and 5G relay boxes criss-crossing the facility.

Inside a control room crammed with screens displaying numbers, graphs and images, technical manager Wang Lei said he could monitor the air, temperature and other data in real time.

Digitalisation "has reduced the intensity of our work", 33-year-old electrician Ruan Banlin, who has worked in the mine for 10 years, told AFP.

Climate change

Huawei said the new methods had increased output per shift by almost a third. 

That's good news for China's energy grid -- but not the planet. 

Greenpeace this week reported Beijing has approved a surge in coal power this year, green-lighting as much in the first three months as for the whole of 2021.

"We're seeing a decrease in the number of coal mines while the clustering of production increases along with total output," the NGO's Xie Wenwen told AFP. 

Asked about smart mining, Xie said it should be scrutinised closely. 

"Obviously the safest thing we can do is leave the coal in the ground. That goes for climate as well as other risks," she said.

According to official figures, China had 4,400 coal mines at the end of 2022. 

If it delivers on emissions pledges, those mines would be operating at minimum capacity and at a loss over coming decades, according to Greenpeace.

But Huawei's involvement suggests China is betting on coal retaining its importance in fuel supply for years.

The company -- whose net profit melted 69 percent year-on-year in 2022 -- is diversifying after US sanctions over cybersecurity and espionage concerns hammered its business.

Xu Jun, head of mining digitalisation for Huawei, said many competitors were setting up teams in the field.

"The investment in smart mining solutions is not contradictory to Huawei's investment in clean energy," the firm told AFP.

"Worldwide, coal and clean energy use will co-exist for a long time. The trend of intelligence in related industries is unstoppable."

'As safe as the ground'

Safety is a major concern in the industry, where last year 245 people died in 168 accidents, according to official figures.

This year in February, a mine collapse in northern China killed around 50 people.

At Hongliulin, data on extraction, miner location and danger detection is centralised on a system designed to eliminate problems caused by human error and miscommunication.

Instead of people, robots patrol and inspect the dark and narrow underground corridors.

"It is much better now," said electrician Ruan. "The underground mine is almost as safe as the ground."

The management says the underground team has been cut 40 percent -- though not the overall workforce -- and only essential maintenance miners descend into the pit.

"We aim to achieve the ultimate goal of completely unmanned underground production," said Shi Chao, director of the mine's intelligence department.

Pollution and mining

It is not just coal mining that has raised concerns about environmental damage. Last month, the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo began reviewing contracts awarded to Chinese companies to mine in the country. And the complaints range from delayed honouring of financial obligations such as building infrastructure like roads and clinics to reckless pollution.

The DRC, Tanzania, Angola and Cameroon are some of the African countries where China is investing in mining in constant search for rare earth minerals. But Beijing itself is the home of those metals, occupying over 35 percent of the world’s rare-earth metal reserves and providing 85 percent of the world’s supply, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS.

Rare earths aren’t actually rare but they are a group of 17 chemically similar elements crucial to the manufacture of many products such as electronics, magnets, lasers, GPS satellites, photoluminescence, computer parts, and lighting systems. Their extraction is however dangerous, which is why mining them can bring both the benefits and potential damages to the environment and the personnel.

They include Cerium used in making car converters. Others include Lanthanum, used in oil refineries and Neodymum used in making magnets installed in loudspeakers and hard drives.

One study in 2021 found that China’s rare earth export trade has grown since 1990s, making it the biggest seller on the market. However, the National Centre for Biotechnology Information indicated that “this fast development was proceeding at the cost of the rare earth energy consumption and environmental devastation.”

One such mine in China is Baotou in Inner Mongolia, and home to the world's largest deposits of rare earths, where environmental conservationists have decried continual pollution. According to Greenpeace, “there is not one step of the rare earth mining process that is not disastrous to the environment.”

The Baiyun Obo Rare Earths Mine in Inner Mongolia, for example, is home to the largest rare earth slurry lake in the world, which is made up of more than 70,000 tonnes of radioactive thorium, according to environmental bulletins by Greenpeace. And there have been reports of health complications increasing including cancers.

Just Earth News, a website on environmental issues, reported of numerous other instances of dangerous mines throughout China.

China partially responded to criticism by shutting down some illegal mines. But most of the rare earth extractions is done by state corporations. And as the world transitions to green energy, the demand will rise. By 2040, the world factories will need six times the demand today, according to current projections. The pollution could likely rise coupled with pollution and health hazards.

For example, according to Just Earth News, the mining process produces 13 kilos of dust, up to 12, 000 cubic metres of waste gas, 75 cubic metres of wastewater, and 1 kg of radioactive residue for every tonne of rare earth that is produced.

- Additional reporting by Aggrey Mutambo