By Michael Lelyveld
China’s government has restored heat to hundreds of frigid households after an “improper” ban on burning coal highlighted problems with anti-smog policies for the second year in a row.
In early November, an inspection team from the Ministry of Ecology and Environment was sent to the capital of northern China’s Shanxi province following complaints that residents were burning furniture to keep warm, according to state media and independent reports.
The problem for households in the Kangle district of Taiyuan city followed a local ban on coal-fired heating, an order that the official English-language China Daily called “improper” in a report on Nov. 23.
Exactly who ordered the ban remains unclear, but news accounts of the episode suggest that central government authorities were eager to defuse public anger and avoid blame.
The local coal ban was part of the government’s campaign to reduce smog in Beijing and other northern cities during the heating season under a fuel-switching program launched with difficulty last year.
Last December, the initiative backed by the environment ministry and the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) ran into trouble when children were photographed sitting outside in the cold to escape chillier conditions in unheated schools.
After an outcry, inspectors found that officials had barred coal-fired heating before natural gas and electricity projects were complete and adequate supplies were assured.
This year, the powerful NDRC planning agency sought to soften the seasonal ban by making it more flexible and ordering local authorities to make sure that alternate heat sources were on hand.
In August, Vice Minister of Finance Liu Wei said that a “matching supply source” for alternate fuels must be secured with winter contracts before coal cutoffs could proceed.
In October, Vice Premier Han Zheng repeated the requirement, telling local officials it was “absolutely forbidden” to leave residents without heat.
‘We have no choice’
Despite the advance warnings, officials in Taiyuan enforced the coal ban on 400 households and 1,500 residents, giving them electric heaters without checking to see whether they could afford to run them or whether homes were properly wired, China Daily said.
The higher cost of electric heating with mostly coal-fired power drove poorer households to burn old furniture and scrap wood, despite the environmental consequences.
“We have no choice but to burn this. We’re not allowed to burn coal and it costs too much to use the heaters,” said one resident, according to the New York-based Epoch Times, citing a China News Service report.
The central government reacted by sending eight teams to meet with residents and “seek their suggestions,” China Daily reported, indicating a high degree of concern.
As with the gas and electricity problems last December, the coal ban was rescinded for the affected households.
“Residents will be offered free clean coal to warm their homes and they can also request more electric heaters if required,” the paper said.
It was unclear whether the problem of paying for more costly electric heating had been solved.
Although the circumstances were different from those last year, the coal cutoff cases in Taiyuan shared common elements.
In imposing the ban, local officials initially responded to residents’ needs with authoritarian and administrative measures to implement government policies.
Little thought was given to the outcome. And the responsibilities for poor planning and implementation were never fully addressed.
“In some ways it is a repeat of last year, but with differences,” said Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert at National University of Singapore.
“The difference is that this year the households are taking matters into their own hands by burning wood,” he said.
The practical effect of policies on poorer citizens also appeared to be a secondary or belated consideration. The government’s approach seems likely to pose problems for air quality improvements in the years to come.
“The key issue is price, and coal will always be cheaper than gas and electricity, even if subsidized a bit,” Andrews-Speed said.
The experience so far this year also raises doubts that the fuel-switching policy is working.
The government has largely blamed a series of smog alerts across northern China in recent weeks on adverse weather conditions. But the explanation may not wash with citizens who have already been forced to pay for fuels more costly than coal.
Resentment of central government environmental initiatives may also rise if more incidents like the Taiyuan heat problem arise while smog alerts continue as before.
The winter cutoff cases are reminiscent of events in 2010, when the central government pulled out all the stops in an eleventh-hour effort to meet five-year energy efficiency targets.
In the process, the NDRC ordered electricity supplies to be curtailed or cut off entirely to some homes, factories and even hospitals before the end-of-year deadline for calculating the energy efficiency data.
Local anger at the government ran so high that the NDRC was forced to promise that it would never withhold energy supplies from the public again.
Breaking the commitment
The Taiyuan episode may come dangerously close to breaking that commitment, perhaps explaining why state media publicized the actions of the inspection teams to see that the local heating problems were addressed.
The cancellation of the local coal ban may only give residents temporary relief from government mandates, however, since the entire district is “going to be demolished and rebuilt soon,” the Taiyuan city government said in a press release.
The China Daily report mentioned the planned demolition almost in passing, raising further doubts about the government’s response to citizens’ concerns.
The government’s campaign against smog is only the visible part of its battle for improved air quality, while international concerns have focused on China’s contribution to climate change.
A report released last week by the Global Carbon Project found that China’s greenhouse gas emissions have risen at a substantially faster pace this year despite increases in renewable energy.
The international group of climate scientists estimated that China’s energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) climbed 4.7 percent in 2018, accelerating from growth of about 1.3 percent last year.
China was seen as the leading factor in the global growth of carbon emissions in 2018 to 2.7 percent from 1.6 percent a year earlier.
“The biggest change in CO2 emissions in 2018 compared with 2017 is a substantial increase in both energy consumption and CO2 emissions in China,” the study said.
China’s coal consumption is projected to rise 4.5 percent this year.