Left Out in the Cold: The Cost of Blue Skies in Beijing

By Justine Lopez, December 20, 2017

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Beijing is experiencing one of the least polluted winters in recent years thanks to China’s plan to replace coal with cleaner alternatives. But while Beijingers are breathing easy, millions in Northern China have been left to withstand subzero temperatures without any heat at all. 

China’s initial plan was to completely replace coal-powered heating with either electric or natural gas heaters for millions of residences and businesses across 28 cities this winter. In August, the government placed strict bans on coal and began installing thousands of kilometers of natural gas pipeline, The Straits Times reports. Millions of homes’ coal stoves were demolished. The region was to be heated using clean energy starting November 1.

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But the program has hit logistical roadblocks, including major natural gas shortages, skyrocketing gas prices and a lack of infrastructure to properly heat homes and schools. Last month, as temperatures dropped well below freezing, numerous provinces reported that work had not been completed on their pipelines and replacement heaters had not been installed. Schools, hospitals, homes and businesses were without any heat whatsoever. 

Teachers at several primary schools in Hebei conducted classes outdoors in the sun because it was warmer than inside, Global Times reports. Meanwhile, residents in Beijing's Shunyi district suffered through cold nights as they waited for their pipeline to be completed. And in Hebei, some students even showed signs of frostbite due to lack of heat, China Daily reports.

In early December, China’s Ministry of Environment responded by formally lifting the ban on coal in areas that had not yet converted to natural heating. Beijing, which became the first Chinese city to rely solely on clean energy earlier this year, was forced to fire up one of its largest coal-fueled plants to help alleviate the natural gas shortage.

According to China’s National Development & Reform Commission, demand for natural gas rose 19 percent during the first 10 months of the year. The sharp increase in usage in the North has now caused shortages in Chinese provinces stretching from Hebei to Guangdong. Factories have been forced to reduce output, and residents have been barred from cooking with gas during peak times, but inefficient supply has still left many without heat to cook, bathe or stay warm.

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Although the move to replace dirty coal with cleaner fuels has been anything but smooth, it has had its benefits when it comes to Beijing’s air quality. In November, the average PM2.5 level in the capital was 58 micrograms per cubic meter – 13.4 percent lower compared to levels seen last year, Xinhua reports. 

While efforts to shift away from coal have been criticized by many as too hasty, it does appear that the plan to create a blue-skied Beijing could work – if executed properly. Beijingers might just have to wait a little bit longer to truly breathe easy.

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