As winter grips rural China, who’s really paying the price for Beijing’s clean air plan?
- Xi Jinping wants to beat pollution by building an ‘ecological civilisation’
- But high prices and an unstable supply of natural gas are leaving rural villagers out in the cold
This winter has been an especially cold one for Nie Hongwang. In previous years, the 50-year-old from a small village in Baoding in the north China province of Hebei would stockpile three or four tonnes of coal to use to heat the family home over the harshest winter months. But that all changed when his rudimentary central heating system was ripped out and replaced with an environmentally friendly natural gas-powered one under a government initiative designed to reduce air pollution.
While the idea might have worked on paper, for Nie and his fellow villagers in Niezhuang the switch has caused nothing but problems, with the high cost and unstable supply of the clean fuel leaving them freezing in their own homes through the coldest season of the year.
Even as he prepared a meal in the relative warmth of his kitchen Nie wore his quilted coat and as he spoke his words drifted on a waft of steam.
“It’s still very cold even after I covered the windows with plastic sheets,” he said. “It’s also very expensive, even with the government subsidies. I can only afford to turn on the heaters for the bedrooms at night.”
Northern China has long had a problem with smog, and the burning of coal for heating is a major contributor to it. In its efforts to improve air quality the central government has set a target to phase out residential coal-fired boilers in 60 per cent of rural areas and all urban parts of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and four neighbouring provinces and replace them with clean energy alternatives by 2021.
Local governments were given three years of financial subsidies to fund the programme and to date almost 6 million households in 28 cities have made the change, either to natural gas, electricity, solar power or “clean” coal.
Last year the Hebei government said the removal of coal-burning ovens had led to a 30 per cent drop in 2017 in levels of PM2.5 – the tiny airborne particles that are most harmful to human health. Levels dropped by a further 12.5 per cent last year and are forecast to fall by 5 per cent in 2019.
But for hundreds and thousands of rural families, the cost of achieving blue skies over northern China is huge.
Nie earns about 30,000 yuan (US$4,400) a year working in construction as a plasterer. Based on what he has spent so far, he said his winter heating bill – for natural gas – was likely to be at least 4,000 yuan, or almost three times what he used to spend on coal.
He said he was also worried about the financial burden on his son, so had asked him, his wife and two children to come and live with him.
Nie also has to cover the cost of heating his elderly parents’ home. Last year that came to about 2,700 yuan – 900 yuan of which was covered by a government subsidy – but even that was only enough to heat their 20 square metre (215 sq ft) bedroom. He said he expected the bill to be higher this winter as the cost of natural gas had gone up by about 10 per cent.
“I fully support environmental protection and I’m glad that the air has got better,” he said. “If only the cost was lower. I don’t know what will happen when the three years of subsidies are over.”
In the nearby village of Wuluohong, one of only a handful that has switched to electric power for heating, resident Wu Lanjing said that for many people the cost of running the new systems was prohibitively high.
“It costs 55 fen [0.55 yuan] per kilowatt-hour during the day and 35 fen at night,” he said. “I spent nearly 2,000 yuan in less than two months. It’s so expensive.”
He said he kept the oven on all day to keep the house warm for his two grandchildren, aged 13 and two, but most of his neighbours only did so at night.
To help reduce his bills, Wu said sometimes at night, when no one was around to see the black smoke it produced, he burned coal and other combustibles to keep the children’s bedroom warm.
“We know all about the importance of having clean air and we hate black smog as much as everyone else,” he said. “But look around. You can’t see any electric heaters running except mine. People simply can’t afford it.”
But since Chinese President Xi Jinping put the creation of an “ecological civilisation” at the centre of his plans for reform, the concerns of Wu and many thousands of others appear to have been disregarded.
According to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, Baoding was one of 10 worst cities for air quality last year. After an environmental protection inspection in November, authorities in the city were criticised by the Hebei government for their “lax control on burning polluting coal” and ordered to “improve political understanding … [of the] construction of an ecological civilisation”.
Several months earlier, in June, the provincial government itself had been criticised when environmental protection inspectors sent by the central government chastised it for its poor controls on the consumption and quality of coal.
Such intense scrutiny eventually trickles down to the public, and people across the region have complained of being harangued for using coal and threatened with fines and even public humiliation for doing so.
One of the worst examples was in the village of Zhaozhengdong in Quyang county. People there were bombarded with warnings blasted from loudspeakers or by patrolling inspectors about the risks they faced if they burned coal.
The threats came even though residents’ coal-fired boilers had been removed and a new natural gas system installed in the village two months earlier was not working, leaving people with no way to heat their homes.
Zhao Zhengong, 74, said he and his wife were left with nothing but a home-made oven – called a “small steel cannon” – which was just about powerful enough to warm bowls of water but provided no real heating.
He said it was so cold at night that he and his wife had to sleep with all their clothes on.
Quyang came under heavy criticism from the provincial government for its handling of the change to clean energy systems, but villagers remained under pressure.
Without natural gas to power their new boilers, residents were told they could use clean coal for heating, but that the burning of wood was still prohibited. The problem, however, was that the clean fuel was no good for starting fires, so people resorted to burning whatever they had.
That did not end well for two Zhaozhengdong men last month, who were taken away by the police just minutes after they used leftover “dirty” coal to fire up their ovens.
One of them was businessman Zhao Jiyong, who said he was interrogated for three hours and “shamed” by police for his actions.
He said he only resorted to burning the coal out of necessity after running up huge debts trying to set up a new property venture after his transport business collapsed with the demise of local coal mining industry.
Zhao’s wife, Liu Yu, said the closure of the coal mines and the switch to clean fuels had a devastating affect on her and her husband.
“Out trucks were idle for six months, and then we were told that we were not allowed to use the 30,000 yuan boiler we bought last year,” she said.
After her husband was released, Liu said the family had little choice but to pay to be connected to the public heating system, at a cost of 150,000 yuan.
“I feel my family has paid a big price for the environment,” she said.
Lin Boqiang, director of China Institute for Studies on Energy Policy, said there was no doubt there was a price to pay for better air quality but it should be shared by the government, business and the public.
“It’s understandable that people are worrying about the cost and whether the government subsidies will continue. That’s all up for discussion,” he said.
But people had to accept there was no turning back and clean energy was the future.
“Clean energy is not the problem, low wages are,” he said. “What’s needed are higher incomes and cheaper fuel. Better air quality comes at a price.”