air pollution

Beijing’s switch to cleaner coal to combat air pollution is leaving China’s poor out in the cold

Urban demands for cleaner air have left residents of surrounding towns without heating and cooking as coal systems are ripped out and gas supply falters.

While middle class Beijingers breath the cleanest air in recent winters, in Zhuozhou, a small city just 20 minutes by train from the capital’s downtown, residents are shivering through cold nights without heating.

The reason: a five-year anti-pollution drive has forced rural areas in northern China to switch from dirty coal to the cleaner alternative. The massive retrofitting campaign has sent gas prices soaring while many are left without heating systems at all.

In two villages close to Zhuozhou’s high-speed railway station, on the city’s eastern edge, villagers estimate only about one third of homes have been connected with natural gas supply, while others say they’re still anxiously waiting for the gas company to install furnaces. Their old fashioned coal stoves were all demolished as the government intensified efforts to phase out coal use in rural homes.

As temperatures drop to around -6°C, they say nights are “increasingly unbearable”, especially for seniors and toddlers. A street cleaner said he had to burn firewood to keep warm.

“It is very cold, but there’s nothing we can do except wait,” a mother who was picking up her seven-year-old boy from school said, reluctant to be named.

Urban residents of Zhuozhou are more vocal about their grievances, as the sudden increase in natural gas demand means disruption in supply for existing users.

“Every day, from 7 pm to early next morning, there’s no heating. Sometimes the gas supply is not stable when cooking,” said a taxi driver who gave his surname as Feng.

Hebei provincial government, which administers Zhuozhou, issued an orange alert for natural gas supply on November 28. It is the second on a four-tier warning system, indicating a demand-supply gap between 10% and 20% that will have a “relatively big impact” on economic and social operation.

The provincial government said it would cut supply for industrial users and prioritise use for residential and public buildings, including schools and hospitals. Neighbouring Shandong, Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces all report similar problems.

Clearing the air

The area surrounding Beijing is one of the worst-polluted in China thanks to its massive industrial production, particularly of iron and steel. Air quality traditionally deteriorates further each winter, with burning of raw coal in rural homes exacerbating factory and vehicle pollution.

In 2013, under a mounting public outcry for government to tackle the smog crisis, China’s State Council, or the cabinet, laid out targets to reduce levels of PM 2.5 – the tiny particulate pollutants that pose the greatest health threats – in Beijing from around 90µg/m3 to 60µg/m3 by the end of 2017. The World Health Organisation recommends an annual mean of 10µg/m3.

Nearby Tianjin municipality and Hebei province – which have worse air quality than Beijing – have been requested to slash PM 2.5 particulates by 25%.

In China, such targets bear political importance. The nation’s leader Xi Jinping has placed increasing emphasis on protecting the environment. In 2014, Beijing’s former mayor Wang Anshun promised to “present his own head” to the public if the capital city failed to meet the mark.

Phasing out overcapacity in iron and steel, pushing for better compliances through campaign-based checkups and car use limitations to control vehicle emissions have made only marginal gains. Official statistics from Beijing show the city’s annual PM 2.5 levels were still at 73 µg/m3 at the end of 2016.

Environmental authorities decided some rural areas in northern China – especially those close to Beijing – had to embark on the arduous program of retrofitting coal-fired heating system into gas-powered ones if Beijing and its surrounding areas were to meet the targets.

Thrust into the national spotlight, local cadres have rushed to comply by stripping coal heating systems from homes.

“The original plan was to shift coal to gas only in some ‘core areas’”, said He Kebin, head of Tsinghua University’s school of the environment, who also advises the central government on air pollution. “But it turned out local governments are too enthusiastic, greatly raising the demand.”

Liu Deshun, an official with National Energy Administration estimated that natural gas consumption in 2017 could hit 240 billion cubic metres, more than 14% higher than in 2016. He admitted “no one has expected” the surging demand.

There has also been a substantial underestimation of coal use – and subsequent demand for natural gas – in these rural areas, due to poor energy statistics.

The surge in demand has driven up prices for those who are connected. The official China Energy News reported price for liquefied natural gas has doubled in two weeks since mid-November, dealing a heavy blow for both industrial and residential users.

A villager in Zhuozhou who was lucky enough to have gas supply – although unstable – said he was very worried about the rising cost of keeping warm. He expects to spend more than 6000 yuan (around $900) – or twice of what he paid for coal – this winter.

Studies have shown China’s middle class urban dwellers are increasingly willing to pay for cleaner air. Yet this winter, vulnerable groups in less developed areas are bearing the brunt of the cleanup costs.

This article first appeared on Climate Home News.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Some of the most significant innovations in automotive history made their debut in this iconic automobile

The latest version features India's first BS VI norms-compliant engine and a host of 'intelligent' features.

The S-Class, also known as Sonderklasse or special class, represents Mercedes Benz’ top-of-the-line sedan line up. Over the decades, this line of luxury vehicles has brought significant automotive technologies to the mainstream, with several firsts to its credit and has often been called the best car in the world. It’s in the S-Class that the first electronic ESP and ABS anti-lock braking system made their debut in the 20th century.

Twenty first-century driver assistance technologies which predict driver-behaviour and the vehicle’s course in order to take preventive safety measures are also now a staple of the S-Class. In the latest 2018 S-Class, the S 350 d, a 360-degree network of cameras, radars and other sensors communicate with each other for an ‘intelligent’ driving experience.

The new S-Class systems are built on Mercedes Benz’s cutting-edge radar-based driving assistance features, and also make use of map and navigation data to calculate driving behaviour. In cities and on other crowded roads, the Active Distance Assist DISTRONIC helps maintain the distance between car and the vehicle in front during speeds of up to 210 kmph. In the same speed range, Active Steering Assist helps the driver stay in the centre of the lane on stretches of straight road and on slight bends. Blind Spot Assist, meanwhile, makes up for human limitations by indicating vehicles present in the blind spot during a lane change. The new S-Class also communicates with other cars equipped with the Car-to-X communication system about dicey road conditions and low visibility due to fog, rain, accidents etc. en route.

The new S-Class can even automatically engage the emergency system when the driver is unable to raise an alarm. Active Emergency Stop Assist brings the car to a stop if it detects sustained periods of inactivity from the driver when Active Steering Assist is switched on. If the driver doesn’t respond to repeated visual and audible prompts, it automatically activates the emergency call system and unlocks the car to provide access to first responders.

The new Mercedes-Benz S 350 d in India features another notable innovation – the country’s first BS VI norms-compliant car engine, in accordance with government regulations to control vehicular pollution. Debuting two years before the BS VI deadline of 2020, the S 350 d engine also remains compatible with the current BS IV fuels.

The S 350 d is an intelligent car made in India, for Indian roads - in the Mercedes Benz S-Class tradition. See the video below to know what drives the S-Class series by Mercedes Benz.

To know more about the 2018 S-Class, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Mercedes Benz and not by the Scroll editorial team.