China’s government has cancelled a ban on coal-fired heating in northern cities after blaming local officials for “hasty” gas conversions that left residents without winter fuel.
On Dec. 4, the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) sent an “extra urgent” notice authorizing 28 northern cities to resume using coal for winter heating if their mandated projects for switching to natural gas or electricity remained incomplete.
The about-face on the government’s order to replace coal with cleaner fuel in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region in time for the heating season was first reported by the independent daily The Paper following complaints from citizens who were left with no heat at all.
Public anger boiled over after China Youth Daily published video images of children at a primary school in Hebei province’s Quyang county who were forced to sit outside in the winter sun because their classrooms were too cold.
The Ministry of Education demanded “immediate” action to provide heating after students at another primary school showed signs of frostbite, the official English-language China Daily said.
The incidents have been a major embarrassment for the government’s environmental policy, which has sought to avoid a repeat of last winter’s smog crisis with a crash program of fuel conversions in areas where coal burning affected air quality in Beijing.
A joint government and municipal action plan for the 28 cities was released as far back as last March, calling for Beijing, Tianjin, Langfang and Baoding to ban small coal- fired furnaces by the end of October, among a host of other measures for the region.
“Areas in these cities will be declared completely ‘coal free,'” the official Xinhua news agency reported on March 31.
But it wasn’t until Aug. 24 that the MEP issued its own 143-page action plan, laying out a series of tough targets and penalties.
The goals included a 25-percent cut in smog-causing particles known as PM2.5 for the region by the end of this year compared with 2012, echoing targets first set by the government in 2013.
To meet the standards, some coal-fired industries were ordered to suspend operations completely for the winter, while others faced steep production cuts. […]
Blame the NDRC
Despite efforts to shift the blame, responsibility for the poor policy coordination seemed to fall squarely on the NDRC and the central government.
The episode is reminiscent of the NDRC’s effort in 2010 to meet five-year energy efficiency targets by cutting electricity to homes, factories and even hospitals as the deadline approached at the end of the year.
“As with the energy intensity reduction program for 2005-2010, central and local governments are struggling to meet at the last moment the targets set by the 2012-2017 air pollution reduction program,” Andrews-Speed said. “Unintended consequences are the side effect.”
It may be too soon to tell how long the disruptions will last, but the blunders are likely to result in a cycle of higher energy costs, shortages and renewed coal consumption that could go on for months.
There were signs last week that the problems were spreading beyond the northern areas.
In central China’s Hubei province, the government of Wuhan city imposed a limit on household gas supplies of 150 cubic meters per month after shortages reduced pressure in pipelines, threatening safe operation, state media said.
In another Xinhua report suggesting less impact, the MEP said Sunday that 5.6 percent of villages in the northern region had encountered gas shortages after completing conversions from coal.
In November, the region experienced a 41.2-percent drop in PM2.5 concentrations from a year earlier, the MEP said.
On Monday, the MEP said that 96,000 households that had no heat on Dec. 15 had now been supplied either with gas, coal or electric heaters, China Daily reported.
The impact on gas supplies has already driven coal prices to new highs. On Dec. 11, coal futures hit a record of 689.8 yuan (U.S. $104.86) per metric ton, Reuters said.
But in some cities where old boilers and furnaces have been scrapped, a return to coal for heating this winter may prove difficult.
In its criticism of “local policymakers,” China Daily also slammed city officials for not conducting “thorough investigations in advance” and having the foresight to know that the central government’s fuel-switching initiative might not come off as planned.
“Some of the coal-burning boilers might also have been kept in operation to provide heating when necessary if there was an insufficient supply of gas,” the paper said.