China's U-turn on rapid end to coal heating

Plans to rapidly cut coal use in China have been halted after households were left without heat. But air quality appears to have improved, despite the setback.

China has made high-profile commitments this year to cutting carbon emissions and prioritizing a cleaner environment. But an action plan aimed at cutting coal use across large swathes of the country has left homes without heating, and forced the government to limit gas supplies to industry.

The interwoven grid of megacities that spans Northern and Eastern China suffers some of world's worst air pollution. Across the country as a whole the World Health Organization estimates that 1.1 million people die prematurely each year as a result of the problem.

Coal-intensive industries and over 200 million cars are the main source of this pollution. But in winter, the problem is compounded by suburban homes heated with coal-fired stoves.

"This is an issue of national health and needs to be addressed with the utmost urgency," President Xi Jinping declared in August, launching the plan to tackle smog in 28 cities in the provinces of Hebei, Shandong, Henan and Shanxi, including the capital Beijing.

Nature and Environment | 12.10.2017

Turning on a dime

The cities were told to lower concentrations of fine particulate matter — classified as PM2.5 — by at least 15 percent, mainly through the phase-out of the 11.2 million tons of coal used to heat around 3 million households in the region.

Coal-fired heating systems were ordered to be replaced by heating with gas or renewable energy, with "severe punishments" threatened against those using coal.

But gas shortages forced the government to lift these restrictions after some households were reportedly left in the cold.

Power stations and traffic are the biggest emitters of smog in China, but domestic heating exacerbates the problem

Valerie Karplus, assistant professor of global economics and management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, said the U-turn wasn't a major set-back for the country's efforts to cut CO2 emissions, but showed the transition would take time.

"The current short-term shortages do not undermine the long-term goal of reducing coal in China's energy mix," Karplus told DW. "They highlight how the energy system cannot turn on a dime."

Measures to cut air pollution in the area had been on the cards since 2013, when China's State Council responded to public outcry with promises to improve air quality. But the sudden ratification of the action plan just two months before the start of winter demanded possibly the fastest energy transition on this scale ever attempted.

Too little infrastructure, too little gas

Hasty construction of gas infrastructure and a range of renewable energy megaprojects are underway in all 28 cities. But not nearly enough was ready to cope with temperatures dropping to an average of -2°C in December. Energy shortages began hitting the region from the December 1.

An employee of the China Huadian Corp thermal power plant in Shijiazhuang, the capital of the province, said his company was indeed transforming heating facilities across the province, but it was impossible to complete the work before winter began.

"To replace coal with clean energy for heating in all of Hebei [province] is a huge project, and it takes time," the employee told DW.

Unfinished construction isn't the only problem. Rising demand sent gas prices soaring, with LNG hitting a domestic record price of 9,000 yuan ($1,361), a metric ton on December 1. Hebei soon issued an orange alert for its natural gas supplies, projecting a gap of 10 to 20 percent in demand.

"The attempt to replace coal with gas in China has been a factor in significantly increased Chinese demand, which has had an impact on liquefied natural gas prices, as China is a major consumer of gas supplied on the international market," Duncan Freeman, a research fellow at the College of Europe EU-China Research Center, told DW.

Government backtracks

In a public statement on December 7, a week after the gas shortage began to leave some households without heat, the Ministry of Environmental Protection issued a statement to authorities  in all 28 cities saying it was their responsibility to "ensure a warm winter" for citizens, despite dwindling heating supplies.

Masks like these worn by children in Handan, Habei province, provide limited protection from smog

The ministry confirmed that burning coal in household stoves would not be penalized, adding that measures would be taken to increase the gas supply and stabilize price.

"In areas where the [transitioning] projects have been completed, the supply and price of natural gas and electricity must be kept stable," a spokesperson from the Ministry of Environmental Protection told DW. "In the case of a supply shortage, priority should be given to civil use rather than industrial use."

That has meant cutting off or limiting the gas supply to some major industrial consumers. The government also ordered a coal-fired power plant in Beijing that had been shut down earlier this year to resume operation.

Cleaner air

"Switching the generator back on for one winter season will provide much-needed heat," Karplus said. "It will be important that emissions control equipment is used when generating electricity from coal to mitigate impacts on air quality and health."

But despite the setbacks, the action plan does appear to have reduced smog. Greenpeace said Beijing's air quality in November was the best it had been at that time of year since 2013.

One Beijing resident told DW the difference was tangible. "For the last couple of years I would have worn my pollution mask continuously for three months, to filter out the heavy smog that hangs on the city," he said. "This winter I have already taken my mask off five times or so."

Oliver Sartor, senior climate and energy research fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations said public health was also an important factor in properly planning the shift away from coal.

"They are still giving priority to gas over coal where they can in these cities," Sartor told DW. "They simply have adopted a policy very quickly and building appropriate gas infrastructure for heating takes time. They can't do it overnight, nor should they – the risks to health of leaky gas pipes are bad for health and safety and potentially worse than climate for coal to the high global warming potential of unburned methane."

Delhi is choking in smog

Twilight

As the nations of the world discuss strategies to reduce emissions at COP23 in Bonn, on the other side of the world, thick smog has engulfed the Indian capital Delhi.

Delhi is choking in smog

Worst air champion

Smog is quite common in Delhi. In fact, the city on the Yamuna river is a sad record holder: it is the capital city with the worst air quality in the world.

Delhi is choking in smog

Winter makes things worse

While the advent of winter doesn't bring snow in Delhi, it habitually makes conditions worse in the megacity. That's because the cooler air traps the smog close to the ground.

Delhi is choking in smog

That damn traffic!

An important contributor to smog is usually motorized traffic, which holds true for Delhi as well. Beyond that, farmers in nearby rural areas traditionally burn their fields after harvest, thereby making their own contribution to air pollution. This practice is technically banned but authorities tend to turn a blind eye.

Delhi is choking in smog

The festival of light

This year, Diwali added to the pollution. The Hindu festival of light not only brought a lot of traffic to the city, it also involved burning large amounts of firecrackers. And it goes on for five days!

Delhi is choking in smog

Can't breathe, can't see

The smog in the city has gotten so thick that it has become difficult to breathe. It burns the eyes and throat and many people complain of headaches. It even obscures the sun.

Delhi is choking in smog

Face mask

People try to protect themselves against the fine particle pollution as best they can using scarves and face masks. But there is really no escaping it.

Delhi is choking in smog

More than a little too high

On Wednesday, pollution levels in the city reached almost 30 times those considered safe by the World Health Organization.

Delhi is choking in smog

Pollution, the great equalizer?

Even heads of state can't escape the thick air. The Belgian King Philippe, inspecting a military guard of honor during his state visit to Delhi is shrouded in smog just like everyone else.

Delhi is choking in smog

Cheap fares and expensive parking

In a first measure to reduce pollution, the city government has targeted motorized transportation. By lowering fares on public transport and raising the fees for parking, it hopes to keep people from driving.

Delhi is choking in smog

No school this week

The chocking smog has also led the city to shut all schools for the remainder of the week.

Delhi is choking in smog

Protesting pollution

People in Delhi are fed up with the chronically bad air quality in their city. These women wearing face masks are on their way to a protest. So far, the city's response to the crisis has been half-hearted at best.