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    Addicted to Coal, Northern China Goes Cold Turkey

    With a drastic campaign to reduce smog, rural families say goodbye to their trusty stoves in favor of cleaner alternatives.

    SHANXI, North China — For decades, 76-year-old Zhang Peiying and the more than 800 households in Beiwayao Village have depended on coal to power their daily lives: to cook, bathe, and keep warm during the coldest months. As a result, winter in China’s coal heartland means not just icy winds and subzero temperatures, but also frequent bouts of thick, toxic smog.

    But along the concrete road that cuts through the cornfields, a half-buried plastic pipe augurs revolution: As part of a pilot project to combat air pollution, Beiwayao is switching to gas.

    Since August, workers have been tearing down chimneys and connecting gas ducts to villagers’ newly bought appliances — in Zhang’s case, two stark white radiators that were bolted to her bedroom wall a few days ago. For now, they’re still cold to the touch, but beginning Nov. 1, millions of people in the region will say goodbye to coal in favor of cleaner alternatives.

    Since China’s cabinet released the Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan in 2013, the country has introduced a host of measures to clean up its skies, from cutting excess industrial capacity and promoting electric vehicles, to taking environmental protection into account when evaluating local officials’ job performance. At the recently concluded 19th National Congress of the Communist Party, the words “lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets” were added to the Party constitution.

    In February, the Ministry of Environmental Protection announced a campaign to improve northern China’s air quality. It listed Taiyuan, which administers Beiwayao, as one of 28 cities to heavily restrict their coal consumption; now, all of Taiyuan’s 269 villages are cutting out coal — with some switching to gas, others to electricity.

    Beginning this month, Taiyuan has banned the sale, transportation, and use of coal except at several heat and power plants; in Beiwayao, the ban will not be strictly enforced until the gas is turned on. The ministry’s campaign also includes limits on diesel fuel, regular central government inspections, and emissions caps for the steel and cement industries. One of the campaign’s goals is for Taiyuan’s air pollution from October 2017 to March 2018 to drop by 25 percent from the same period the previous year.

    In Shanxi, such initiatives look to transform not only people’s way of life, but also the local economy. With almost 40 percent of China’s total coal reserves, the province is home to the second-largest mining industry in China, a crucial source of energy that has powered the country’s economic revival. The province’s fossil fuel consumption per unit of GDP is among the highest in the nation, and 80 percent of Shanxi’s energy comes from coal. The city emblem of provincial capital Taiyuan depicts a red coal fire burning above coal-black soil.

    For as long as she can remember, Zhang’s life has revolved around the black rocks. The daughter of a coal miner, she was born in Lüliang, a neighboring city to Taiyuan. When she was little, she collected discarded coal shards that her family used to heat their kang, a raised platform for sitting and sleeping that was once common in northern Chinese houses.

    Unwittingly, Zhang is an expert on the different types of coal. “The coal from my hometown is good in quality, but burning it produces too much smoke,” she says, waving her hands as if to fan away fumes. But the coal she grew up with is better than what she has used since 1962, when she married and moved to Beiwayao.

    In the courtyard of Zhang’s home — a square compound typical in the northern Chinese countryside — a hawthorn tree bearing mellow red fruit stands near the gate. Underneath it sits a small rubber bucket filled with a mixture of coal slurry and loess that Zhang puts into the family’s coal stove bit by bit throughout the day. At times, the stove fills the house with smoke, dust, and ash, and Zhang must clean the chimney regularly to keep it from clogging up. “It’s very inconvenient,” she says. “But it’s been decades, and I’m used to it.”

    Together, the heavy industries and millions of households in Shanxi burned over 371 million tons of coal in 2015, more than half the total coal consumption of the U.S. Stoves like Zhang’s are blamed for contributing to hazardous concentrations of PM 2.5, pollution particles that are small enough to enter the bloodstream.

    “Unregulated residential consumption of coal contributes around 40 percent of the PM 2.5 in the city,” says Song Li, director of the regional pollution control center at the Taiyuan Environmental Protection Bureau. In 2016, the average PM 2.5 concentration in Taiyuan was 66 micrograms per cubic meter — more than six times the World Health Organization limit for healthy air and almost double the national standard. With the ban on coal, Song says, the municipal government expects to see a 90 percent reduction in coal consumption and a 40 percent drop in PM 2.5 levels, which would outperform the target set by the environmental ministry.

    Two kilometers west of Beiwayao, in Zhaojiashan Village, 33-year-old Zhao Xiaoxiao hopes the coming winter won’t be as bad as the last, when large swathes of northern China repeatedly suffered levels of smog considered “severely polluted” by Chinese government standards. In Taiyuan, December and January saw only four days when the air pollution dipped to “excellent,” and on the worst days, smog levels exceeded the maximum possible reading on China’s air quality index, according to numbers from, a pollution data website run by a nongovernmental organization.

    In Zhaojiashan, the government installed a central boiler powered by electricity to pump hot water to all 68 households in the village. Before, Zhao would wake up at 6 a.m. to fire up the family’s own coal boiler. “The ashes floated all over the room every morning when I moved coal into the house and put it into the boiler,” Zhao tells Sixth Tone.

    Although the electricity for Zhaojiashan’s boiler will likely come from a coal-fired power plant, this method should still be more environmentally friendly, says Xie Hongxing, director of the Innovation Centre for Clean-air Solutions at Clean Air Alliance of China, an environmental think tank that promotes clean and sustainable development. “[Household stoves] do not contain any cleaning features and therefore emit much more pollution than burning coal at a thermal power station,” he tells Sixth Tone.

    Coal runs like a seam through Zhaojiashan’s history. The village used to operate its own coal mine that employed almost every male villager. In 1983, the risk of the land caving in meant the whole village had to be relocated. Zhao’s husband worked in the village mine from his teenage years until 2008, when the mine was shut down as part of a government drive to close smaller and unsafe operations.

    The current policy changes will cost even more Shanxi residents their coal jobs. Jiang Chunhai, an economics professor at Dongbei University of Finance and Economics in northeastern China’s Liaoning province, has studied the economic and social effects of local restrictions on coal. He acknowledges the environmental benefits but warns that a ban on coal consumption can bring shocks to the local economy. In light of Shanxi’s dependence on coal, Jiang tells Sixth Tone, “[It] will face greater pressure in terms of GDP, government revenue, and employment compared to other provinces.”

    At his rental house at the foot of the Xi Mountains, northwest of Taiyuan, Su Jianhong shovels coal from his yard into a three-wheeled truck. For 20 years, Su and his wife sold the black rocks all over Taiyuan, which earned them 80 yuan ($12) a day in the winter. But that occupation is now illegal. The couple plan to move back to their hometown near Lüliang and either sell vegetables or work in construction. “One has to find a way to make a living,” Su says without much confidence.

    Higher up in the Xi Mountains, miners emerge from the Ximing coal mine after their morning shift. With faces obscured by black dust, they head to the mine’s public bathroom. There, hot water comes from a decades-old coal-powered boiler operated by 64-year-old Zhao Baogui. “We won’t use this boiler anymore beginning in November,” he says, pointing to a group of workers installing high-voltage wires near the bathroom for a new electric boiler.

    During his noon break, 35-year-old miner Shi Liming sits outside enjoying the sunlight next to the train tracks that carry him and his colleagues underground. He has been working at the mine for 12 years, following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. “The ban on coal makes sense to me,” Shi says. “It’s good for the environment and the next generation.” Confident that coal will remain a crucial source of energy, he’s not worried about losing his job. “The coal industry will always be necessary,” he says.

    Coal has long been central to Shanxi’s way of life, and many locals aren’t confident that the new technologies will be an improvement. Although Zhaojiashan villager Zhao Xiaoxiao believes electricity will prove cleaner than coal, she doubts it will be warmer. “The structure of our houses is different from apartments in the city — they’re not well-insulated,” she says. In the winter, temperatures in the area drop as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius.

    Wang Mingsheng, head of Zhaojiashan Village, heard the same worries at a public briefing on the central boiler project in March. “The manufacturer of the boiler said the temperature inside people’s homes should be able to reach 25 to 26 degrees Celsius,” Wang says. “But we won’t know until we actually use it.”

    Another concern is cost: Natural gas is up to three times more expensive than coal. Beiwayao resident Zhang is a thrifty farmer. “Using gas will be cleaner,” she says, sitting next to the radiators that she bought secondhand to save money. But, Zhang adds, “Nobody has told me how much the heating bill will be.” Her family used to pay less than 1,000 yuan on average for coal during the five coldest months of the year.

    According to Song of the Taiyuan Environmental Protection Bureau, there will be subsidies for households that switch to cleaner energy. Song cites an estimate from the gas supplier that says families will use an average of 2,000 cubic meters for the entire cold weather season. Based on this figure, the government will cover half of the cost for natural gas consumption below 2,250 cubic meters. Beyond that, residents will have to pay the full 2.26 yuan per cubic meter. “We will try to keep the cost no higher than that of using coal,” says Song.

    But the sudden increase in gas use could endanger supplies and drive up prices. Factories that have also been told to switch out their coal-fired boilers for gas models are already reporting continuous rises in operating costs. On Monday, Shanxi province called on local governments to “not blindly promote the coal-to-gas project” and ensure that there will be an adequate supply of gas before making the swap.

    “The switch in energy sources cannot be accomplished in a short period of time. There should be a gradual and orderly process,” professor Jiang warns. “[The local government] should not sacrifice results for the sake of progress.”

    Li Xiangfang, a professor of natural gas engineering at China University of Petroleum in Beijing, tells Sixth Tone that the cost of gas is already higher than it should be due to a lack of supply. “In recent years, China’s supply of natural gas has not been able to meet the rapidly increasing demand,” Li says. China has become one of the world’s largest importers of natural gas, with 36.6 percent of its resources coming from abroad. “The switch from coal to natural gas will boost the demand for gas,” Li adds. “The price of natural gas, especially in the countryside, should be further lowered.”

    On the streets of Beiwayao Village, some 200 workers are still busy installing the last gas pipes and radiators. “The schedule is tight. We have a short time to prepare,” Song says, adding that he is sure all the equipment will be in place before the end of the month.

    Zhang is still waiting for a boiler to be installed in her house, but she isn’t too worried about going without heat if the project misses its deadline. If the gas doesn’t start flowing on Nov. 1, or if her new radiators don’t prove a match for Shanxi’s frigid weather, Zhang says, “I still have the coal stove for the cold winter.”

    Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

    (Header image: Miners head to work underground at Ximing coal mine, Shanxi province, Oct. 19, 2017. Fan Liya/Sixth Tone)