Nov 18, 2016 05:11 PM

Effectiveness of Beijing-Area Pollution-Curbing Measures Questioned

Pollutants pour out of cooling towers at a coal-fired power plant in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province. Photo:IC
Pollutants pour out of cooling towers at a coal-fired power plant in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province. Photo:IC

(Beijing) — Families in northern China prepare in advance for winter, with affluent urbanites buying smog masks as emissions surge, while poor villagers stock up on dirty coal to heat their homes.

Low-quality coal used in rural homes is the biggest source of tiny cancer-causing particles that hover over the region periodically from November to March, said He Kebin, head of the School of Environment at Tsinghua University. Small boilers collectively cough up more toxins in winter than industrial emitters do, he said.

Meteorologists are expecting longer bouts of smog this winter because of a warmer-than-average season with fewer cold fronts and less wind, the Ministry of Environmental Protection warned earlier this month.

The central government already had announced plans in October to phase out by November 2017 all small coal-fired boilers, which are widely used in rural homes, small hotels and restaurants in some districts of Beijing and adjoining areas in Tianjin and Hebei province.

The move is part of the capital's plan to cut the concentration of PM2.5 particulates, or those 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter, by nearly one-third by 2020 and ensure residents enjoy at least 204 blue-sky days every year. But experts say it would be cheaper to promote the use of higher-quality coal, better insulate rural homes and push villagers to use more-efficient coal burners than it would be to switch to cleaner but costly alternatives.

Using natural gas is three times more expensive than burning coal, said Tao Guangyuan, head of the China-Germany Renewable Energy Cooperation Center.

Switching to electricity would be as expensive as using natural gas, a study by Renmin University's School of Environment and Natural Resources found in 2014. The government would have to pay farmers electricity subsidies of 9 yuan ($1.30) for each kilogram of coal they would otherwise use, the study said.

Saving Beijing

The areas where the coal ban will gradually come into effect include four districts in the south of Beijing, several rural counties and districts in the adjacent port city of Tianjin, and two major cities in Hebei. That province, which surrounds the Beijing and Tianjin metropolises, has been the center of China's effort to combat pollution as it is home to seven of the country's 10 smoggiest cities, according to air quality data from last year.

Bouts of smog that hit the region last longer and are more frequent because they lie on a plain with the Yanshan Mountain range to the north and Taihang Mountains on the west, which blocks the wind and traps pollutants, said Chai Fahe, a deputy director at the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences.

But financial constraints limited the ban to an area just big enough to ensure air quality in the Chinese capital will improve, and it will not lift the toxic clouds that hang over much of northern China after the winter heating season begins, said an environmental ministry official who asked not to be named.

The curb will affect over 1 million households in over 3,300 villages in Langfang and Baoding — China's most polluted city last year, according to official data, with just 16 blue-sky days in the first half. It will also affect residents in over 400 urban slums in 14 other counties in Hebei. The number of families affected in Beijing and Tianjin is not known.

While policymakers are trying to stop villagers from using dirty coal, the area's state-run heating systems, power generator and heavy industries in these "no-coal zones" will continue to use electricity from coal-fired power plants.

But according to Zhao Yingmin, chief engineer at the environmental ministry, lawmakers were focusing on easy targets when they targeted old stoves that lacked filters and were inefficient at burning coal. Although the 36 million tons of coal used in private homes, small hotels and restaurants in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei accounted for just 10% of the fuel consumed in the three regions each year, they generated nearly half of the hazardous pollutants, he said.

Wrong Priorities?

But policymakers have misplaced priorities by pushing farmers to switch to electricity or natural gas for heating while their homes are poorly insulated, said Song Guojun, director of the Research Institute of Environmental Policy and Planning at Renmin University in Beijing.

If rural farmhouses were to be built with proper insulation, it would cut coal usage by up to half, according to recent studies, he said.

Switching to high-quality coal would have been an easier transition, another academic said.

"Banning coal use in homes will have a limited effect," said Wu Lixin from the China Coal Research Institute. "Instead, we should work toward the efficient use of high-quality coal across the board."

Enforcement has long been regarded as the weak link in China's efforts to curb pollution, and other experts questioned the sustainability of this approach, given the country's lack of natural gas deposits.

Chai from the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences said both domestic production of natural gas and imports have gone up in recent years, but this increase has not been enough to make up for the drop in coal use that is predicted after the new policy takes effect.

China has vast untapped coal but mostly relied on imports for its natural gas needs, said Tao from the China-Germany Renewable Energy Cooperation Center. The selective ban on coal would push up demand for imported fuel and undermine the country's energy security.

Tao offers an example to illustrate this. Authorities in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei were forced to suspend liquefied natural gas supplies to businesses in December 2015 due to a delay in shipments, he said. Problems like this could easily disrupt energy supplies to homes and businesses because China was still slowing building its natural gas reserves, Tao added, whereas countries like Germany had reserves enough for three months to cushion such shocks.

Tao also said Germany adopted a simpler solution to curbing emissions than pushing millions to switch to costlier fuels.

When Berlin was under pressure to rein in pollution, policymakers did not abandon coal, but instead worked to make burning coal more efficient. Coal used in small boilers and private homes in Germany emitted 5% of the pollutants that similar facilities produced in China, he said, hinting it might be time for Beijing to rethink its plans.

Contact reporter Li Rongde (; editor Poornima Weerasekara (

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