China’s mission to eradicate its coal industry is having the unfortunate side effect of making life unbearable for the communist country’s working poor, according to a report Saturday from The New York Times.
A brutal crackdown on the industry is creating a raging black market in coal in parts of China, the report notes. Citizens are covertly trading in the now-prohibited fossil fuel in the same way the illicit drug trade has taken shape in the U.S.
China’s dramatic switch from coal to natural gas exploded energy prices in provinces across the country. One shopkeeper TheNYT interviewed claims it now costs nearly as much to heat her place each month, about $400 in American dollars, as the average monthly wage, about $650, in the province where she does business.
Those who receive government assistance can pay down the costs, but winters becomes harsher and deadly if that aid is stripped away.
“As long as the government keeps subsidizing it, it will be O.K.,” Li Lihu, a retiree who supports the changeover, told reporters before mentioning the importance of reducing China’s staggering air pollution. “If they stop next year, nobody will be able to use it to keep warm.”
The problem is five years in the making. China’s state council laid out comprehensive plans in 2013 to reduce levels of the tiny particulate pollutants pose the greatest health threats – officials wanted to reduce PM2.5 levels in Beijing from around 90µg/m3 to 60µg/m3 by the end of 2017. The World Health Organization wants the mean of 10µg/m3.
Authorities decided some rural areas in northern China had to ratchet up plans to transition coal-fired heating system into gas-powered ones if Beijing and its surrounding areas were to meet the targets. The issues could become more acute over the next several years as China continues ratcheting down coal production – the goal has had a profound effect on citizen’s lives.
Coal is now contraband in some provinces, including Qiaoli, where some residents continue to use it whenever they can, claiming the local authorities granted a reprieve until the Chinese New Year later this month. Many avoid going on the record for fear of being arrested or worse.
“You’re not going to report us, are you?” one villager in the province asked while unloading raw coal into the courtyard of his home. His family uses the now-banned fuel source to feed the stove that warms the hearth of their home – the villager asked to be called by his last name, Zhang, to avoid the Chinese government’s watchful eyes.
Zhang bought his coal from behind a row of abandoned workshops located outside of the village – he was behaving like a low-level felon looking to score an ounce of marijuana. A woman picking up coal dust at the ramshackle market where he made his purchase shooed away reporters when they began asking questions.
There have been instances of residents in Qiaoli getting arrested for burning or selling coal, according to the report, suggesting the authorities’ seriousness in enforcing the decrees here has ramped up dramatically.
China has been replacing less efficient coal plants and even delaying projects until after 2020 to tackle the country’s chronic air pollution. Yet it still operates 1,000 gigawatts of coal-fired power capacity, and that number isn’t expected to change much in the coming decades.
Officials promised to peak greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and increase its use of energy from non-fossil fuel energy sources. China plans to get 20 percent of its energy from solar, wind, nuclear and hydro power by 2030 – the crusade against coal began shortly after officials signed the Paris accord ambitions alongside former President Barack Obama in late 2014.
President Donald Trump announced in June that he would withdraw the U.S. from the Paris accord, largely on grounds that it favored China and India. Many politicians and environmentalists now see China as the “leader” of the global warming crusade.
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