The complete transformation to renewable and other energies, e. g., nuclear power and the closure of all hard coal mines within China are still in the distant future. Until now, China is by far the largest producer of coal worldwide – it concentrates half of the world’s production – and looks back on 20 years of rapid expansion of coal mining and consuming. Because China is largely dependent on a stable energy supply (security of supply) through coal-fired power generation, this conversion process will probably take a long time to complete (1). Although coal mining is still heavily practiced, it has now currently reached the phase of stagnation of its mining life cycle. Nevertheless, China has already made experiences with the closure of mines in certain locations, regions and their post-mining development. Still, with regard to post-mining China’s status is at the beginning. Therefore, it can be helpful to look at the market development phases after Heuss (2). The model combines an in-depth consideration of market cycles and their ideal life stages with expected entrepreneurial characteristics (3). According to Kretschmann (4), this representation of a life cycle can also be applied to the mining sector. For the application it is necessary, that the following criteria are met: On the one hand, the mining segment under consideration may only have a small number of product groups and, on the other hand, the sales market must be clearly defined. This is largely the case for raw materials, which in this example describes the coal production (4).
This model of a mining life cycle can assist to classify the current level of development in China with regard to its hard coal production. It describes the ideal typical course that mining regions usually go through during its life time (Figure 1).
Applied to China, this allows conclusions to be drawn about the current mining stage and the resulting future prospects of mining and post-mining.
As can be seen from the model, mining goes through four different phases in its lifetime:
- plateau (stagnation); and
The decline goes hand in hand with the mining closure and abandonment. These phases are dependent on the time as well as on production rate and market price (4). For the application to China, it can be looked back on a long phase of growth. It has only recently been possible to determine that the Chinese coal mining industry is reaching its plateau (stagnating) and not experiencing any further growth or significant expansion (5; 6). This stagnation does not mean an absolute stagnation or decline on the national level in the next years to come, but more a slower growth of production (stable plateau production) and a reduced share of coal in the national Chinese energy mix. Since the realignment of China regarding the climate protection and sustainable measures within the previous five-year plans, active work has been carried out to gradually replace the hard coal mining industry with the integration of renewable and other energies (5). However, such a profound change takes time to further understand the changes in the coal supply. An analysis of historic and current production dates in combination with the life cycle model have been performed.
The last phase of the decline and the mining closure is not yet present, as the mining industry just has reached its plateau phase, which can last for a long time (1).
The Chinese mine life cycle shows strong growth since the introduction of hard coal mining and especially in the 1990s (Figure 2).
A slowdown in growth has been evident since around 2011, accompanied by energy saving plans and the government’s five-year plans (8). Since then, production has leveled off at an estimated 4 Mt/a. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), a slight increase in coal consumption is forecast after 2020, but this should reverse by 2025. An explanation of these projections is based on the political changes of the last few years, in particular the five-year plans for energy saving and more environmental awareness (9).
2 The Chinese energy & mining policy
Energy is a major driver of economic development, especially in China, where energy-intensive industries play a key role (10). It positions itself in third place of the recoverable coal deposits and represents a share of 13 % of the total reserves worldwide (11). Nevertheless, the Chinese government has already started the transition to a low-carbon energy system and is developing strategic alternatives to a merely coal-based system. To make the transition successful, politicians should carry out these alternatives within a sufficient political framework and future strategy in implementation as can be seen in the China Renewable Energy Outlook 2017 (12). To this end, strategies have already been developed. Especially the last, 13th five-year plan (2016 – 2020), introduced by the Chinese government, include significant contributions to energy savings. The aim of the government is to achieve a stable phase of growth and, at the same time, to reduce harmful CO2 emissions. Therefore, the current plan is resulting in further energy savings and more environmentally friendly developments (8). Only recently, on 22nd September 2020, President Xi Jinping made clear statements about the Chinese goals for the coming years at the United Nations General Assembly. Especially in times of the Corona Virus, he points out that a profound change to a green economy is essential for the continued existence and life within the environment. In this context, e. g., it is important to ensure the restoration of resources and invest in conservation. Because of this, China has declared itself the goal of reaching the peak of its CO2 emissions by 2030 and ensuring subsequent neutrality even by 2060. This should support sustainable development worldwide and encourage other countries to do the same in China (13).
To secure the country’s power supply continues to be a challenge in the transition, because it is a necessity to integrate renewable energies on a large scale without endangering the stable power supply. More flexibility is required than is currently possible (1). Existing coal-fired power plants are still a necessity to achieve a barrier-free integration of fluctuating renewable energies, because coal power generation serves always as base load, peak production and security of supply in the power generation system (1). Although that the coal reserves are high with a reserves replacement ratio (RRR) of above 1 and coal continues to be the main source of electricity generation, the number of additionally installed coal-fired power plants has decreased in recent years (1). In addition, the burning of coal is largely responsible for the emission of CO2, air pollution and dust in China and therefore to far-reaching health risks causing environmental pollution (14). On top, the coal production causes the pollution of water, the degradation of the soil and the land use (12).
Increasing challenges are due to the decline in availability of high quality coal deposits, the increase in mining depths, long distances from mines to the markets and the necessity of improving safety standards, as well as availability of trained labors or job alternatives for the workers (10). From a historic point of view, the environment was not assigned a high priority for a long time. The industrialization, urbanization, mobilization and increasing wealth of the population had negative consequences on the environment in recent years (10). Therefore, in mining areas the environmental impact of the coal production is massive and requires nowadays new and innovative approaches for the risk amount, impact mitigation and revitalization for a future use. Here the methods developed under the scheme of post-mining need to be deployed and adopted.
The development of the Chinese coal production is similar to the historic developments in the German coal production. Germany is currently in the phase of closure and post-mining (Figure 1). Still, if China succeeds in keeping its promised target agreements on CO2 neutrality by 2060, then this can be said to be a relatively short implementation period. There are still around 40 years left to reach this goal and in direct comparison to the German decline and exit from the coal industry, this is very fast. It took Germany around 60 years to do this. With regard to the mining life cycle introduced above, an estimated one to two decades per phase and the achievement of the next phase within the cycle can be expected. However, since China is a much larger mining country than Germany and it consumes a larger number of coal amounts, just as it generates different amounts of coal combustion, this change in China will be much more demanding. This is precisely why the early consideration and inclusion of post-mining measures is so essential in order to actually achieve this goal and to ensure a sensible conversion and recultivation of mine areas. The knowledge transfer from Germany can therefore make a concrete contribution and create added value for both sides.
3 The Research Center of Post-Mining (FZN)
In order to reach excellence in post-mining, motivation and skills have to come first. Research and development are essential for this area in order to realize suitable skills, sustainable and long term visions (15). Based on this paradigm and in combination with the decision to completely withdraw from hard coal mining in Germany in 2018 – after decades of decline and corresponding experiences with social, regional and environmental adoption – the Research Center of Post-Mining (FZN) was established at the TH Georg Agricola University (THGA) in 2015 (16). The FZN with its applied sciences is developing solutions for a wide variety of tasks: from coal mine closure to future-oriented monitoring and risk management. The FZN works interdisciplinary in general, but is structured in different units that are dedicated to the respective topics. Now these units consist of perpetual ecological tasks widely mine water management, geomonitoring and mine surveying, materials science and reactivation and transition (Figure 3) (17).
The mine water rise processes, e. g., were detailed for the Ruhr area, Saarland, Ibbenbüren and other German hard coal mining areas, as well as for neighboring European countries, analyzed and published in the form of a project report (18). Geomonitoring, in turn, aims at technical data sets and information within the life cycle of a mining site in order to comprehensively evaluate the circumstances. This is why the “digital twin” concept comes into play, which digitally records an industrial process in its entirety (idea, implementation, maintenance, monitoring and dismantling). With the help of this recording, a twin can then be made – a digital image of the location. This in turn enables post-mining tasks to be dealt with, future and perpetual tasks and the associated risks and costs to be assessed (19). In summary, the layout of the FZN is closely linked to the holistic view on the complete mine life cycle (20).
4 German post-mining as a possible support for China
Because post-mining in China is still developing, implications and experiences from Germany can be helpful. This saves time, budget and possible risks for the environment and society.
Therefore, post-mining should be seen as more than just providing preventive and corrective measures. Rather, it should map a sustainable process that is based on the combination of risk management and the seizing of opportunities. A legal framework in the form of government guidelines can create incentives, promote research and development (16). Post-Mining means to train and set up an integrated team of experts who have expertise, experience in geology, hydrogeology and hydrochemistry, as well as the rehabilitation of mine sites and rock mechanics. Areas such as legal and civil administration, management and the understanding of social, environmental and economic aspects are also essential. The availability of engineers with the necessary qualifications will become indispensable in the future. In this context, the FZN offers training to use projects on mine closure, implement integrated geomonitoring, as well as reuse and redevelop mining regions.
Therefore, the China University of Mining and Technology in Beijing is an excellent example. It is a key national university under the direct supervision of the Ministry of Education (21). This university deals with the importance of mining issues itself. Therefore, they are aware of the necessity of dealing with the consequences that result from coal mining, but also recognized the importance of post-mining. In cooperation with the China University of Mining and Technology, the THGA and the FZN, recently translated the publication of the anthology “Done for Good – Challenges of Post-Mining” (22) into Chinese. Therefore, it is now in the process of being published by the Science Press Beijing in China, too (23). This is an important step in order to enhance the knowledge in this regard and to improve the handling of the challenges.
An example of responsible handling of mining and post-mining challenges is the province of Shanxi. The energy saving policy, which is especially part since the 12th and 13th Five-year-plans from the Chinese Government, was successfully implemented here (24). To this end, a “Fund for the Sustainable Development of Coal” was established in 2007. Since then, all exports of coal have been taxed and the revenues generated have been used to support energy-saving initiatives and projects against coal. This fund was created to coupe the interests of the province with regard to its concerns about coal mining, with the incentives from the energy-saving policy. The export tax has several functions here and this is a perfect example for the starting implementation of post-mining, initiatives and activities. The social and economic consequences that the province experiences from coal mining should be decreased. The tax also guarantees that provinces that import coal from Shanxi will also bear the costs, regardless of the pure coal price. A side effect of this is that the increased costs for exports should keep the resources within their own province as far as possible. This can generate a larger GDP and thus promote regional development, which in turn has an impact on Shanxi’s prosperity (24). The Shanxi province example can be compared with the German post-mining activities. With the implementation of a legal framework the foundation is created to reduce the different technical, economical, environmental and societal impacts of the hard coal production. The Zhejiang Province can also make clear progress in the same direction. Since the mining there contributes significantly to the prosperity of the region, it should be able to continue to be used accordingly. Nevertheless, the consequences for the environment are present, so that different methods are used there. This includes the grouting, filling and point column methods as well as acid waste water neutralization and the use of waste resources, but also the development of so-called mine parks (25). Further, a Chinese feasibility study from 2020 examined the extent to which it is possible to convert abandoned coal mines into underground pumped storage plants. On the one hand, this should minimize costs and, on the other hand, offer advantages in economic, social and ecological terms. The study was able to show that this is basically feasible and that the choice of location and the reuse of former coal mines can serve as references (26). Also, there are already scientific articles on possible strategies that deal with the conversion and new use of former mountain areas and/or regions. An example would be the article by Liang et al. from the year 2018 (27). It implies the political and economic strategic connections regarding the development and use of abandoned mine resources, as well as a strategy for the new normal state of the coal deposits.
Since China had long struggled for energy to cope with its rapidly growing economy and the restricted choice of energy resources, China relied primarily also on small coal mines to keep industrial growth stable. Individuals as well as local governments were therefore allowed to set up small coal mines and factories while the state worked on building large ones. This development resulted in a great popularity of small-scale mining and thereby led to wild mining, which is difficult to control (28). Thus there were many small mines that were either privately owned or operated illegally (29). As can be seen in Figure 4, there were still 1,642 small mines in 2014 alone. In contrast, there are 394 large and 403 medium-sized coal mines (30).
It it is advisable to control or to shut down small-scale mining and thus especially wild, difficult-to-control mining as far as possible. Many of this small mines operate informal and effective control is hardly manageable, but effective monitoring of the closure process itself, as well as geomonitoring measures are required. Therefore, the government should constantly endeavor to close small mining operations in order to minimize the risks (29). This might foster the transformation to renewable energies. Especially the closure of small mines demonstrate the importance of a post-mining framework.
Due to the predominantly active mining in China, post-mining is not yet as important as in Germany, where hard coal mining is getting more attention and has therefore come to a closure. Therefore, the focus on post-mining in Germany is more advanced. The FZN at the THGA in Bochum has already gained experiences and developed integrated and applied solutions for the last years. Besides, Germany has a mining law, in which all legal regulations relating to mining and post-mining can be found and which must also be obeyed. The situation in China is completely different. The number of coal mines is by the factor 100 larger than in Germany and no comparable mining law which regulates the mine closure and post-mining activities is existing. Even though mining will still play a leading role in the country’s energy strategy in the coming years, coal mining has entered the phase of stagnation and first developments towards post-mining activities can be seen, e. g., in the Shanxi province. Given the width of the interdisciplinary tasks involved, appropriate solutions and recommendations are required. The many years of comprehensive specialized knowledge and experience in Germany, especially the FZN can be deployed as a role model for a sustainable post-mining development in China.
The authors would like to thank Prof. Peter Goerke-Mallet from the Post-Mining Research Center at the TH Georg Agricola University for his support and the provision of literature. Further thanks go to Prof. Jörn-Carsten Gottwald from the Section of East Asian Politics at the Ruhr University Bochum, who helped promote the idea for this contribution.
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