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Awakening to the Crisis of Abundance—A Reflection on Coal Mining in Fuyuan County, Yunnan Province

Information provided by Li Jia (Assistant Programme Officer, Yunnan Office, PCD)
Written by May Tam (Communications Officer, PCD)

The coal industry has increased job opportunities for inhabitants of Fuyuan County.

True to its name, Fuyuan County in Yunnan is rich in natural resources, especially coal [*]. It is one of China’s main coal-producing areas. Not only has coal provided Yunnan's population with abundant energy, it has also provided the local people with jobs and the opportunity to become rich. However, crisis is emerging amid abundance—coal production is polluting the environment and Fuyuan has in recent years suffered a number of climate and geology-related disasters. The coal reserves will not last. We must therefore think about the future generations. The need for sustainability means we must be alert to dangers in times of peace. PCD has therefore supported a local organisation to facilitate reflection among Fuyuan inhabitants on the relationship between energy consumption and climate change and to promote diverse lifestyles that reduce carbon emissions.

Rapid Development of the Coal Industry

With PCD's support, Yunnan Green Foundation carried out a survey at Fuyuan County in 2012 to study the situation of mining, production and consumption of fossil fuel, predominantly coal, and their impact on the environment. The survey report was published in July, 2013. The study found that Fuyuan is very rich in coal reserves. The area underlain by coal covers 1,088 sq. km, or 32.5% of the county, spanning all 10 townships. Estimated coal reserves are thought to be 19.1 billion tons, with proven  reserves of 8.246 billion tons. Coal is therefore the main energy source used in Fuyuan. The county is also rich in water and biological resources (forest fuel) as well as solar energy, but use of these more sustainable resources remains relatively low. For example, among the three townships under study, only in one township does solar energy make up more than 35% of energy consumption. In the other two townships, solar energy takes up only 12.5% of the energy consumed.

With the state development policy for the western region and the plan to transmit electricity from the west to the east, the development of Fuyuan's coal industry has accelerated. The excavation of raw coal increased from 16,454,800 tons in 2006 to 20,447,300 tons in 2010. Use of raw coal and its by-products (such as cleaned coal and electricity) in Fuyuan also increased rapidly in this period, with energy consumption among inhabitants of the county rising from 83,000 tons to 126,500 tons of standard coal between 2005 and 2010. Energy consumption in villagers’ daily life activities has risen as a proportion of overall energy use (including primary, secondary and tertiary industries) from 8.43% to 12.7%.

Harm Caused by the Production and Use of Fossil Fuel

The use of coal has increased the standard of living and comforts of life, but also has negative consequences including greenhouse gas emissions. Over the last four years, Fuyuan County has also suffered natural disasters related to climate change, such as frost, drought, flood and hailstorms which have resulted in substantial problems for the county. (For details, please read the illustration below, Chinese only.)

According to the survey report, coal mining has had impacts on the geology, water resources and air quality in Fuyuan County. For example, mining results in subsidence and land deformation which has led to soil erosion. Underground water also sinks deeper leading to lowering of the water table and drying of the soil. In addition, there has been pollution of water sources and the air. Since 1998, Qujing Prefecture, which has jurisdiction over Fuyuan County, has been listed as an acid rain control zone.

Villagers Respond Positively to Clean Energy and Energy Saving

Our survey interviewers tried to help inhabitants of Fuyuan County understand that production and consumption of coal is not sustainable and that for the sake of nature and human beings, we should use clean energy instead. Even though the interviewees did not know much about the subject, they were positive about clean energy and were aware of environmental issues to some extent. Among the 49 rural families interviewed, 40% knew about clean energy but an equal percentage were previously ignorant of it. However, 60% of the families said they were willing to use clean energy. Nearly all interviewees, including farmers, civil servants, company owners and workers, agreed in the value of not wasting energy. During visits, the interviewers also noticed that many farmers and offices were using energy-saving lights.

Interviewers found, however, that there were blind spots in the understanding of the county inhabitants in relation to energy consumption. Most of them thought that energy consumption related only to the use of electrical appliances powered by coal or petroleum. They usually overlooked their other consumption behaviour, such as buying too many clothes and using imported goods. They did not appreciate that the production and transportation of goods also consumes energy.

Training and Education Brings About Changes

During the period of the survey and after the survey report was completed in July 2013, PCD conducted a number of training activities on the production and consumption of coal and the issue of sustainability. A workshop was conducted to provide knowledge about energy to more than 60 rank and file workers in the energy sector in Fuyuan County. Participants included forest station workers, Forestry Department staff and power station employees in the rural area. The workshop covered issues such as the relationship between energy consumption and climate change and the experience of Fuyuan County in relation to hazards of fossil fuel production and consumption. It aimed to reduce reliance on coal and to encourage the use of clean energy, as well as to advocate reducing carbon emissions by the adoption of energy-saving practices. The workshop also discussed the goal and long term implications of forest conservation and rural energy work in the context of global climate change.

Advocates of the Transition Town initiative [1] from the UK were also invited to provide training to Fuyuan workers. By learning about Peak Oil, climate change and issues of sustainability in relation to modern lifestyles, the participants recognised the urgency for change from a global perspective and learnt how personal actions might have an impact on the whole environment.

PCD also supported Yunnan Green Foundation in producing an educational calendar for 2014. The calendar, which was distributed to Fuyuan residents, contains useful information such as the relationship between the production and consumption of coal and climate change; the benefits of using clean energy; and how changes in personal consumption behaviour and habits, such as not wearing synthetic clothing, not using disposable eating utensils, and consuming locally produced food, help to protect the environment.

Learning About the Impact of Personal Behaviour

During the survey, interviewers also took the opportunity to facilitate villagers to learn about their own consumption behaviour and their use of energy. From the questions and answers, some villagers realised that unnecessary consumption would result in energy waste. For example, a male villager over 50 years old reflected on the difference between people’s consumption habits today and in the past: “People used to buy new clothes only once in a few years. Nowadays people buy new clothes every few days, especially the young people. They are always dressed up!” The interviewers then discussed with them how they could contribute to environmental protection by cutting down on consumption and treasuring what they already own.

Change is possible. In fact, thanks to the efforts of the county government, an increasing number of villagers have switched to clean energy, such as methane gas and solar energy. PCD hopes that the survey on the production and the use of energy and the subsequent consciousness training initiatives can also be implemented in other programme sites in an effort to alleviate the deteriorating environmental destruction and accelerating climate change.


Footnote:

  1. Transition Towns is an environmental and social movement that began in the UK. The objective is to promote sustainable living in township communities and to build local ecological resilience by encouraging communities to reduce energy use and consumption of food transported from a long distance, as well as to grow their own food by establishing community farms.

Translator’s note:
* The Chinese name, Fuyuan, means rich in resources.

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Fuyuan County has an abundance of coal reserves.
The coal industry has increased job opportunities for inhabitants of Fuyuan County.
Coal is a source of energy for the rural area.
Old kind of stove used for burning coal.
On the educational calendar, there is a list of recent disasters in Fuyuan related to climate change.
Clean energy advocates of Fuyuan County conducting community educational activities on clean energy at the office of the village committee.
The benefit of solar energy is explained on the educational calendar.

Inhabitants of Fuyuan have begun to use clean energy such as methane gas.
 

 

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