Can China Wean Itself Off Coal? 

A northern province wants to desmog by replacing coal with “clean coal.” It’s not working.

A passenger on a train from Beijing to Chengdu looks out the win
A passenger on a train from Beijing to Chengdu looks out the window at coal containers on June 23, 2010.

Photo by Juliana Jiménez

This article originally appeared in Caixin.

It has been nearly two years since officials in Hebei Province started promoting the use of “clean coal” by households in an effort to clean up heavy air pollution in the skies of northern China, but the results have fallen short of expectations.

Persistent smog in China’s big cities has spurred governments, especially in the heavily polluted region of Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei, to take action. Coal, which is used to produce more than two-thirds of the country’s energy, has become a major target in the fight against air pollution.

Hebei, which as home to many of the country’s largest steel refiners is a major consumer of coal, made ambitious plans to reduce emissions from coal burners in 2013. The provincial government estimated that rural households in Hebei burned 20 million tons of coal that year, mainly for winter heating.

In November 2013, the province started building production facilities and a distribution network for so-called clean coal, which officials say causes less pollution, to replace widely used soft coal. Hebei planned to build 200 production facilities by 2017 that had capacity to turn out 35 million tons every year.

Hebei officials also made ambitious plans to sell 2 million tons of the cleaner coal in 2014 and 7 million tons this year. By 2017, 90 percent of the province’s coal consumption was to be “clean.” But the results have been disappointing. Only 520,000 tons of clean coal were sold last year.

Many locals are ignoring the government. One, Zhang Guorong, a 60-year-old woman who lives in a village in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei, said that even with a government subsidy, she still has to pay 500 yuan for each ton of clean coal. Soft coal, she says, costs just 300 yuan per ton.

Zhang said she bought 1 ton of clean coal last year and found that it did indeed produce fewer emissions. There was a problem, though. The new coal “didn’t burn strong enough,” she said, and it did not provide enough heat for her home. “What coal to use and how polluted it is not the top concern for ordinary people,” said Zhang, who lives on around 1,000 yuan per month. In July, her family bought 1 ton of soft coal for the coming winter.

A monitoring center in northern China that is run by the Ministry of Environmental Protection says coal burned for household or agricultural purposes in the Beijing-Tianjin and Hebei region contributed one-fourth of dust emissions and two-fifths of sulfur dioxide emissions. Both of those pollutants are related to smog levels.

The solution, officials say, is clean coal. So-called clean coal is a mixture of anthracite coal powder, charcoal powder, and various chemicals. In theory, it produces 70 percent less sulfur, half the nitrogen oxides, and 80 percent less dust. The Chinese Academy of Sciences also says clean coal yields fewer polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a highly carcinogenic compound. Health experts have linked the use of low-quality coal with lung and respiratory infections, and many other diseases.

But these arguments do not persuade ordinary people in rural Hebei to stop using soft coal. They care more about the efficiency of their purchase—staying warm—than what experts say. Li Genfa, a coal seller in Shijiazhuang’s Xingtang County, said his clients care most about how much heat coal yields and the cost. “Ordinary people prefer the cheaper option,” he said.

His most popular product is a type of soft coal from Shenmu County, in the northwestern province of Shaanxi. It was actually banned by Hebei environmental officials for use in homes last year because it is highly polluting, but enforcement of that prohibition is weak, so it is still widely sold, Li said.

Factory operators do not seem to like the government’s new coal idea much more than the public. Officials tried to get large state-owned collieries on board their project, but mine owners had little interest, said a source close to the Hebei development and reform commission, which sets industrial policy.

So the government turned to private owners. Li Yingqiang, head of Zhao County Clean Coal Co., said he converted his business from storage to clean coal production in 2013 in hopes of taking advantage of the government’s new policy. He expected profits to be low to start, but hoped the business would at least be sustainable.

Li got a government subsidy of 2.8 million yuan and spent a total of 20 million yuan on his plant, including a new production line with an annual capacity of 200,000 tons that opened in September. But the facility produced only 20,000 tons of clean coal in the last four months of the year. A disappointing 12,500 tons of coal were sold.

“I never thought it would be so difficult,” Li said. “Our costs remain high while equipment and workers sit idle.” Li said he has no idea when his factory will turn a profit, and neither do the more than 40 other plants that launched around Shijiazhuang in 2013 and 2014.

The Hebei government is paying consumers a subsidy of around 300 yuan for each ton of clean coal they buy. It planned to phase that out by 2018 and open the market to competition. But for now, strict price controls mean producers are enjoying small profits. A document from the provincial development and reform commission shows that 1 ton of clean coal costs 736 yuan to produce while the retail price is 800 yuan.

Huang Tao, director of Hebei government’s economic operations bureau, said that by September Shijiazhuang will have 105 clean coal plants with total annual capacity of 15 million tons in operation. However, he added that the sales target of 7 million tons this year will be difficult to reach.

A lack of public understanding, the price problem and an inadequate crackdown on low-quality coal have hindered change, he said. This means targets for how are difficult to achieve and some long-term planning is required to fix the problem, Huang said.