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Fig. 1. At the FZN at the THGA, Julia Tiganj is studying the socio-economic aspects of post-mining. Photo: THGA

“A ‘green’ China can drive the whole world to change”

At the Research Center of Post-Mining (FZN) at TH Georg Agricola University (THGA), Bochum/Germany, Julia Tiganj (Figure 1) is studying the socio-economic aspects of post-mining. In times of raw material scarcity and the energy transition, the economics researcher’s attention is especially drawn to China. Will the world’s second-largest economy manage the transition to renewable energy? What are the greatest challenges they face and what will the rest of the world gain? There’s not much research yet but the topic is super hot right now, says Julia Tiganj being interviewed by Carmen Tomlik from the FZN.

Carmen Tomlik: In your expert opinion, where does China stand on the energy transition and on post-mining?

Julia Tiganj: That depends on where you look. There are many provinces in China which vary greatly, e. g. in their reliance on coal. There are regions which are already working sustainably. On the other hand, there are provinces whose economies rely heavily on mining. Here, coal secures a lot of jobs, taxes, pensions and, of course, supports national economic growth – which is one of China’s primary goals. As you can see, the gulf between them is massive. For this reason, it will be difficult in future to meet the many different economic requirements and the needs of the people in the different regions. There are interesting pilot projects, e. g., some people are thinking of using old, disused mines to create “underground cities” to compensate for the demand for space in the cities. Of course, the idea is controversial – but it is quite an innovative one and begins to face the issues of post-mining. China is also a global leader in satellite technology. Here the question is how far this expertise is being used to monitor the legacy left by mining.

Tomlik: China without CO2? What are the greatest challenges on the way to carbon neutrality?

Tiganj: Coal is still the easiest and safest way to secure a stable energy supply. China intends to become carbon neutral by 2060. However, this also means that the highest CO2 emissions peak needs to be behind them by 2030. At the moment, they are therefore still building new coal power plants which are designed to run for 40 years. These power stations, however, meet the latest environmental standards and are intended to replace out-dated, inefficient plants. At the same time, China is already a market leader in renewable energy. Around 90 % of the energy concentrates used in solar panels, silicon batteries or wind power are made here. Until now, preventing climate change had no priority within China itself. The latest five-year-plan, however, demonstrates that China wants to become “greener” and has recognised the urgency of this.

Tomlik: What does “greener” mean in this case?

Tiganj: That’s the next big challenge. After all, renewable alternatives also produce CO2 and are not yet 100 % recyclable. The rotary blades of wind turbines, e. g., are disposed of as hazardous waste after being in use for only 20 years. Air pollution or poisonous wastewater threatens certain areas of land and the people who live there so that clean energy can be produced in a different part of the world. This is not sustainability, this is a displacement of climate problems from A to B under the smokescreen of a green future. As you can see, the whole setting is far from ideal – and now we haven’t even talked about the labour market and the long-term challenges that structural change would bring to Chinese coal-mining areas. Nevertheless, it is an important step to say: We are reorienting ourselves, we are doing research and we want this transformation.

Tomlik: What would the rest of the world gain if China becomes carbon neutral?

Tiganj: When large, influential players like China pay more attention to sustainability and protecting the climate, this has a positive impact on everyone else. Direct neighbour states often orient themselves in accordance with dominant China and its approach. Depending on import and export dependencies, other countries may also find it necessary to reorient themselves in order to keep up. Also, China is an important trade partner in rare earths and is highly influential on the advances of e-mobility in Europe or the USA. This and many other aspects are factors which are helping processes to become more sustainable globally. Generally, a lot of research and development is still needed in order for the energy transition to be successful. Here too, a “green” China could become an international driver of innovation. (THGA/Si.)