How can the world's largest coal producer, the Chinese province of Shanxi, break free from its coal addiction? Xiaojun “Tom” Wang explains

Transcript: Climate Quickie:  How Shanxi can break free from its coal addiction

TEDxLondon Climate Curious

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Xiaojun “Tom” Wang grew up in the Chinese province of Shanxi, the world’s largest coal producer. Tom joins Climate Curious to share the devastating impacts of coal mining; air pollution, landslides, acid rain, soil degradation, whilst asking, what really is China’s strategy when it comes to climate? And as the world’s largest producer of renewable technologies, how can Shanxi, and China, break free from its coal addiction? Recorded live at TED Countdown Summit 2023.

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[00:00:00] Ben Hurst: Welcome to Climate Quickies. Bite sized nuggets of climate goodness from our TEDxLondon experts in under 5 minutes.

[00:00:10] Maryam Pasha: In this week’s Climate Quickie, we hear from Xiaojun, Tom Wang, who grew up in the Chinese province of Shanxi, the world’s largest coal producer. Each year, more than a billion tons of coal are dug out from underneath Shanxi’s mountains, helping heat and power at least 24 other provinces in China.

[00:00:29] Maryam Pasha: Tom shares the [00:00:30] devastating impacts of coal mining, accidents in coal mines, massive landslides, and damage to cultural sites, and calls for Beijing to ease the pressure on Shanxi’s coal industry. Tom talks about how his home province needs support in breaking free from this coal addiction. He sees not only to transition to a clean economy, but also to protect its rich cultural heritage.

[00:00:53] Maryam Pasha: Over to Tom to tell us more. Stay curious.

[00:00:57] Xioajun Tom Wang: Hello, this is Xiaojun Wang. [00:01:00] Most of my friends outside China call me Tom. I am from China, from a tiny, tiny town called Liliang in central China’s Shanxi province. Our province is called Shanxi. Which means, uh, west of the mountains, and we are known as the capital, uh, of coal for China.

[00:01:18] Xioajun Tom Wang: Uh, we are the world’s largest coal producer. Uh, every year we, um, produce more than 1 billion tons of coal. Uh, this year for 2023. Our target, [00:01:30] our task is to produce 1. 4 billion tons of coal, um, and that is twice as much as the world’s second largest coal producer, India, as the whole country, uh, put out in 2022.

[00:01:44] Xioajun Tom Wang: So that’s the massive size of our coal production. And we send a lot of our coal. To other provinces, other cities in China to support their growth, but we are paying for that kind of, um, mining and coal [00:02:00] burning in our province. We have some of the worst air pollution. We have some of the worst, uh, uh, natural disasters, uh, related to coal mining, um, such as, for example, water pollution, soil erosion, soil degradation, because, um, acid, rain, or coal dust get over the farmland and then, uh, crops will just stop growing.

[00:02:24] Xioajun Tom Wang: And some of our fruit trees, for example, when in spring, uh, they get [00:02:30] into all these beautiful pink, white, um, blossoms, but then they don’t produce any fruit. Because coal dust would just stop all the pollination process. So that is what is going on in my province. I mean, it looks beautiful, um, when you see all the fruit trees in full blossom.

[00:02:49] Xioajun Tom Wang: And then, when you think about it, You realize, wow, this is a nightmare going on in the disguise of a beautiful scenery.[00:03:00] [00:03:04] Xioajun Tom Wang: I think China’s position on climate has changed quite dramatically, um, in the past 15 years or so. Uh, I remember back when we were working on climate change, um, In 2008, 2009, right before Copenhagen or even right before Paris, let’s say, it was very difficult to get Chinese media, [00:03:30] especially mainstream media, to cover climate stories because at that time, um, climate change was still thought or seen as a, um, a way that developed the world, wanted to try to stop, uh, developing countries, uh, from growing.

[00:03:48] Xioajun Tom Wang: Um, So we had a really hard time convincing journalists to talk about climate change, um, but then just a few weeks ago, um, [00:04:00] so let’s say this is about 15 years later, right? A few weeks ago, I was, um, flying back from Shanghai to Manila and picked up a newspaper, uh, called, uh, 经济参考报, which is run by China’s Xinhua News Agency.

[00:04:18] Xioajun Tom Wang: There are about, um, 16 pages of this newspaper. On the cover story, there are already two stories about, um, on the cover page, there are already two stories about climate [00:04:30] change. And then throughout the paper, on different pages, you see altogether about, uh, six or seven stories. on different sections. Some of the stories were about industry, some of the stories were about lifestyle, about consumption.

[00:04:46] Xioajun Tom Wang: But you realize, wow, all of a sudden, after 10 to 15 years, now climate change stories or energy stories are the mainstream stories. This journalist probably didn’t even have a conversation among themselves, right? [00:05:00] But somehow in that one edition, in that one day’s newspaper, there were all these stories about climate change.

[00:05:08] Xioajun Tom Wang: And that gave me some goosebumps. And I just thought, wow, you know, things have really changed. And it is quite clear that nowadays, I think, it is time that China started to realize its responsibility and started to take a more leadership role. And I think China is going in that direction. Um, for example, in [00:05:30] 2021, uh, our president Xi Jinping made the commitment at the United Nations General Assembly that China would step up with its support for green low carbon energy in developing countries.

[00:05:43] Xioajun Tom Wang: And that is a huge deal because before that commitment, China was the world’s largest coal investor in other countries. And then after that, that was a big change of direction. Uh, so I do see. There’s more and more space, [00:06:00] uh, for China to play a bigger role, um, when it comes to climate leadership.

[00:06:10] Xioajun Tom Wang: Things are happening within China, but people outside China don’t really read about them because there is a such a big gap between, uh, Chinese media and the, the, the, the rest of the world really. Um, for example, at the moment, uh, Chinese readers [00:06:30] are probably not really very aware of, um, a lot of the climate crisis going on, uh, outside of the country.

[00:06:38] Xioajun Tom Wang: Um, so I do think there’s a lot of, uh, room for us to keep pushing those stories into China. And at the same time, um, To keep pushing the stories about how big a role Chinese renewable energy industry can play in developing countries, because that’s where all the [00:07:00] energy transition or energy shift is happening.

[00:07:02] Xioajun Tom Wang: And China as the world’s largest, uh, Investor and, um, technology developer and also producer of all this renewable energy equipment and industry can play a huge role in these countries to support their energy transition so that they can move away from fossil fuel as fast as possible.

[00:07:28] Xioajun Tom Wang: When we dig coal, when we [00:07:30] mine for coal, and in my hometown, for example, we even wash coal. And so that’s, you know, like that kind of coal would be clean or that coal would burn without letting go or, you know, like releasing so much solid pollutant. But also at the same time, we also transport coal. A lot of the coal goes out of the province and we burn coal, of course.

[00:07:58] Xioajun Tom Wang: And that leaves [00:08:00] behind, as I was saying, you know, like Uh, soil erosion, water pollution, air pollution, um, farmland degradation, and also roads are getting damaged, people are getting killed, um, young children are dying as well, um. So that, that by itself is just such a huge cost. That is. currently not really reflected in the coal price.

[00:08:26] Xioajun Tom Wang: When other provinces or even other countries, I mean, our [00:08:30] coal from Shanxi province goes out, out of the country, goes all the way to America, goes all the way, uh, to, to the Philippines where I live nowadays, and also goes all the way to the UK. Uh, so people do not really realize When they burn coal in these places, there are so many people suffering from the, from the root of coal mining and the coal burning.

[00:08:53] Xioajun Tom Wang: Uh, so that, that is definitely the very first reason why we need to phase down, if not phase out coal, [00:09:00] uh, as fast as possible. And then at the same time, uh, for me to be living in the Philippines, um, We actually go through, um, direct climate impact, um, almost every week or every month. Uh, the, the, the saying in the Philippines is, you know, we used to be able to name all the typhoons in one year with, um, winning.

[00:09:27] Xioajun Tom Wang: I mean, like not even all the 26 [00:09:30] alphabet, uh, letters, um, but nowadays. They’re not enough. We have to start all the way from A again. Um, so yeah, I mean, like when I have conversations with Filipino young people, I say, um, do you understand about climate change? Do you, um, know about climate impacts? Everybody says yes, of course, because we live through that every day.

[00:09:51] Xioajun Tom Wang: And then when I say, have you ever seen coal? They say, no. Because in the Philippines, we don’t really produce a lot of [00:10:00] coal, right? Most of the coal or oil is actually imported from other countries. So, when it comes to climate crisis or how urgent that is, that’s another reason why. Uh, China or my province needs to, uh, move away if not stop coal mining and coal burning, uh, as soon as possible so that other countries can also feel a little bit safer.[00:10:30] [00:10:30] Xioajun Tom Wang: The very first win was that, uh, back in 2005, China was one of the world’s first countries to have a renewable energy law. So we produced a law, actually, to encourage the growth of renewable energy. Um, that was already, you know, like 22 years ago. Um, and now China is already the world’s largest investor, developer, and also, uh, manufacturer of renewable energy equipment, [00:11:00] technology, and everything.

[00:11:01] Xioajun Tom Wang: And, uh, just, uh, very recently I took some of, uh, my… NGO friends from different countries to visit China. We went to a province, uh, called Jiangsu, uh, very near Shanghai and visited all these solar companies, uh, and wind, um, turbine manufacturers and talked to some other new technology, uh, companies who think they can [00:11:30] actually capture, uh, and then turn that carbon into fertilizer.

[00:11:36] Xioajun Tom Wang: So what they call is from carbon to food. And I thought that was so interesting. And there are all this kind of, um, research and development going on in China towards that direction. Um, and That kind of mentality shift, as I was saying, both in the government, in the industry, in media, in [00:12:00] the public, is just tremendous.

[00:12:03] Xioajun Tom Wang: And that, I think, is probably the biggest win ever, really, for me as an environmental activist. You know, the best thing you want to witness is how people… How the industry, you know, like the money seekers actually change their behaviours because they see there’s more money in the solution. Thanks for listening

[00:12:23] Maryam Pasha: to this quickie.

[00:12:24] Maryam Pasha: This episode was created by our superstar podcast team at TEDxLondon. Until next time, [00:12:30] stay

[00:12:30] Ben Hurst: curious.


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