Pollution fight cold comfort for families without heating in northern China
As temperatures plunge below zero, they have no coal to heat their homes and no reliable supply of natural gas
After millions of Chinese families were forced to give up coal for their winter heating, some now find themselves without a reliable supply of natural gas to heat their homes as temperatures plunge below zero.
The government has touted its progress in replacing coal-fired boilers in northern China with electric or natural gas heaters – a key measure in the country’s ongoing battle against air pollution.
But as the winter chill begins, some northern families say a sweeping coal ban and delays in supplying natural gas have left them out in the cold.
One woman in Linfen, Shanxi province, who declined to be identified, said all of the boilers in her village had been dismantled, but work on new gas pipes appeared to be nowhere near completion.
The 30-year-old said the local Communist Party committee had warned residents against burning coal for heating with the slogan: “If your home has smoke coming out, see you in the detention centre.”
“They’re still doing the digging work to lay the gas pipes,” she said. “My baby has fallen ill because of the cold.”
On social media site Weibo, dozens of users from northern China said they had yet to be provided with the natural gas for heating promised by the authorities.
“I can’t bear the cold in my home, even with a thick coat on,” a user in Yongqing county, Hebei province wrote on Sunday.
“We don’t have any heating on such cold days,” a user from Anyang, Henan also wrote on Sunday. “How will we get through the winter?”
Under a “battle plan” to combat smog in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and its surrounds, the Ministry of Environmental Protection pledged to have electric or gas heaters installed in three million homes in the first 10 months of the year. The sale and burning of coal for heating was also banned in the region.
But along with delays in setting up pipes, many northern cities are also facing a severe supply shortage of natural gas as more companies and households switch to the cleaner fuel.
China saw 15.2 per cent year-on-year growth in natural gas consumption and a 17.9 per cent rise in gas imports during the first half of the year, according to the National Development and Reform Commission.
Citing growing demand and a delay in building gas infrastructure, the state planner has called on China’s energy giants to ramp up production and make sure residential users are given supply priority.
Some regions have already experienced a supply shortage. In Taishan, Shandong province, local supplier Taishan Gas Group said thousands of households had their gas cut off over the weekend because of insufficient supply.
Laban Yu, an energy analyst at investment bank Jefferies, said a cold winter would likely cause a gas shortage across the country, given that the inventory levels at the start of the season were lower than last year’s.
Yu said the supply-demand gap could only be closed if China allowed gas prices to rise freely, but that could potentially cause social problems.
“If they do allow the prices to rise, a lot of industrial users will be able to afford it,” Yu said. “But the mums and dads using it to heat their homes won’t.”
Even at the current level, some households in rural China are reluctant to turn on their gas heaters because they fear expensive bills.
Zhang Hongxia, 45, who lives in a village in Handan, Hebei province, said she had not used her heaters yet this winter, even though temperatures had plunged below zero at night.
“We’ll switch them on when it gets unbearably cold,” Zhang said.