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    China Reverses Coal Ban for Still-Unheated Properties

    Emergency measure comes too late for homes, schools, and businesses whose coal boilers were removed.

    China’s central government has issued an “urgent” notice to allow thousands of shivering households to resume using coal for heating. The move counteracts an earlier plan to have 28 northern cities replace coal with more environmentally sound alternatives and curtail air pollution by next March.

    Released Monday by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), the notice gives coal-burning privileges to residents whose electric or gas heating systems have either not been installed or not been turned on, ensuring that they won’t have to suffer through a subzero winter, Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper reported Thursday.

    The notice also guarantees a stable natural gas price for residents who have access to the alternative fuel: Over the span of just 10 days in November, gas prices rose by nearly 30 percent, to 5,600 yuan ($850) per ton, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics.

    The MEP conceived of the coal-to-gas initiative in February of this year, and had set a deadline of Oct. 31 for implementation in over 3 million households. Under the plan, 28 cities in and around the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region have been tasked with reducing emissions and improving air quality, with a target of 10 to 25 percent fewer “severe pollution” days compared to years past.

    As clean air has become more closely tied to political success, many local governments not specifically targeted under the plan have voluntarily adopted the same or similar restrictions.

    By some criteria, the campaign has worked: The latest figures show that air quality in 17 cities in the north of China — particularly Beijing, Baoding, and Shijiazhuang, three cities with unenviable reputations for heavy smog — have made progress this year. However, on the flip side of clearer skies are thousands of people left in the cold because gas heating systems remain unfinished.

    Meanwhile, temperatures across northern China have been below freezing throughout the month of November. On Tuesday, teachers at a primary school in Hebei’s Quyang County — which lies outside the compulsory coal ban area — began holding class outdoors to soak up a little warmth from the sun, and around a dozen schools have reported that they still have no access to gas.

    Residents in Linfen, a city in the northern province of Shanxi, were asked to hand over their coal two months ago, but then had their newly installed gas radiators remain cold until mid-November. Despite the unbearable chill, it’s still illegal for people to use coal to warm themselves. Earlier this month, Linfen police detained a 30-year-old man for selling coal, and four villagers were given warnings after they burned coal outdoors to keep warm.

    Jiang Chunhai, a professor of economics at Dongbei University of Finance and Economics in Dalian, Liaoning province, told Sixth Tone in a previous interview that replacing coal can only be achieved gradually. “Each region should set coal-related policies based on its own situation,” Jiang said. “Playing catch-up while ignoring the real-life consequences runs counter to the coal ban’s intended purpose.”

    Even after the MEP’s reversal of the coal ban, many residents feel that it’s not enough to bring them out of the cold. “Many households’ coal-fired boilers have already been destroyed to make room for gas boilers,” a Shanxi villager surnamed Li told Sixth Tone. “How are these families supposed to burn coal now?”

    Editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: Two workers stand atop a pile of coal at a power plant in Beijing, Dec. 22, 2012. Fu Ding/Legal Evening News/VCG)