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China pollution

Decision on coal is warmly welcomed

Move by China to ease ban on burning coal in the wake of freezing conditions is the correct one, and shows the need for officials to balance supply and demand

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 December, 2017, 12:57am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 December, 2017, 12:57am

Hands and feet numbed with cold as a result of official miscalculation are not the way to the people’s hearts – quite the reverse. Nor are they a shining advertisement for President Xi Jinping’s policy of development targeted at improving the quality of life, showcased in his report to the recent Communist Party congress. Before too many more photos appeared of children studying outside in chilly northern cities because it is warmer than inside, Beijing has moved to impose the common sense and flexibility lacking in the way local officials implemented a law framed with good intentions.

It has relaxed a ban on burning coal that was designed to reduce air pollution amid a growing outcry from residents left without a reliable energy supply for maintaining warmth as winter sets in. After the restriction forced millions of families to convert to cleaner fuels, such as natural gas, for heating and cooking, supply shortages and delays in setting up pipelines left many of them out in the cold.

China U-turns on coal ban amid growing outcry over numbers left freezing in winter cold

This prompted two urgent responses from the central authorities. The Ministry of Environmental Protection told officials in 30-odd cities to relax the coal ban in places where conversion to gas was incomplete, and to ensure stable supply and prices for those who had switched to gas or electricity. The National Development and Reform Commission, China’s top economic planning agency, has also intervened with natural gas suppliers to stabilise price and supply. The bungle is not untypical of local officials whose responses to edicts from above have been known to range from one extreme to another, or from over-compliant to defiant. Beijing itself experienced one at first hand recently, when officials evicted tens of thousands of migrant workers into freezing streets, without time to find alternative shelter, from buildings deemed unsafe after a tragic fire.

Apart from slavishly following orders that ought to be enforced sensibly or sensitively, local officials have also been known to ignore those they do not want to hear, such as those seen as unhelpful to local growth rates and prospects of personal political advancement.

In the latest case, they cannot claim to have had no warning of a demand-and-supply crunch, with demand increasing nearly 19 per cent in the year to October, ahead of peak consumption in the November-February winter heating months. There is no question the policy of substituting gas for coal as heating fuel meets public demand for better air quality and serves China’s international carbon emissions obligations. But if people and quality of life are to come first, there needs to be a sensible balance between supply and demand. Officials responsible for implementation should bear that in mind.