Change in the air

Updated: Apr 7, 2018 China Daily Print
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China's use of natural gas surged by 19 percent in 2017, as areas across northern China switched to this relatively clean fossil fuel and away from highly polluting coal in residential heating and industrial uses, according to data from the former Ministry of Environmental Protection, now called the Ministry of Ecology and Environment.

This enabled those in Beijing and surrounding areas to enjoy many clear, blue-sky days this past winter, in sharp contrast with the heavy air pollution seen just a year ago.

Increased use of natural gas is a key part of plans to reach the national priority goals of creating an ecological civilization and higher-quality growth. These goals were stressed at the recent two sessions meetings of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing.

Air pollution in northern China is usually worse in the winter, but this past winter saw unprecedented improvement. Largely due to the policy decision to shift to natural gas for heating and many industrial uses, the average concentration in Beijing of the most hazardous small particulate matter, PM2.5, fell in January by 70 percent year-on-year to 34 micrograms per cubic meter, the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau said in a statement. It was the first time the figure was under the national standard safe level of 35, the bureau said. However, recent weeks have seen many days of high air pollution, although coming weeks are forecast to be clear.

From October to January, all 28 cities in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, also known as Jing-Jin-Ji, and surrounding areas saw winter air quality improve. For example, Shijiazhuang in Hebei province saw a decrease of 52.4 percent. Jining in neighboring Shandong province saw the smallest decrease, 8.4 percent, according to the ministry.

"The dramatic improvement in air quality mainly resulted from effective and tougher controls on emissions and advantageous weather to disperse pollutants," said Li Xiang, director of air quality management at the capital's Environmental Protection Bureau. Restrictions covered many sources, such as factories, vehicles and the burning of coal, she said, adding that more than 11,000 polluting companies were closed or moved.

In 2013, Premier Li Keqiang announced goals to reduce pollution throughout the country. This was a fundamental change of direction from the previous emphasis solely on rapid GDP growth. Since then, policies to shift toward cleaner industry and energy brought down the average concentration of PM2.5 by almost 40 percent from 2013 in the Jing-Jin-Ji region. In Beijing, the average concentration of PM2.5 went down from 89.5 micrograms per cubic meter in 2013 to 58 mcg per cu m for the entire year of 2017-below the target of 60 set out when the campaign was launched and 36 percent below the 2013 level of 90. Throughout China, 338 cities saw an average reduction of 6.5 percent from 2016 levels.

Recent research by the Energy Policy Institute of Chicago estimates that the reductions in air pollution since 2013 add 3.3 years to life expectancy in Beijing and, in Hebei province, 4.5 years in Baoding and 5.3 years in Shijiazhuang.

Winter shortages

This year's rapid shift from coal to natural gas has led to shortages. According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, around 100,000 families and some schools temporarily lacked heat in December. The government stepped in with a combination of measures, including allowing some additional use of coal and moving natural gas from industrial uses to residential and from southern China to the north. The National Development and Reform Commission also ordered Beijing to restart a coal-fired power plant that had been shut down in March last year.

Natural gas prices soared in December. The price of liquefied natural gas in China jumped from 4,000 yuan ($605) per metric ton to more than 10,000 yuan per ton. However, the price was brought down to 5,613.6 yuan per ton by mid-January, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics.

Han Xiaoping, chief information officer of China Energy Net Consulting, said the current natural gas shortage is due to insufficient domestic gas resources and the lack of distributed gas storage infrastructure, especially underground storage tanks.

In addition to building more natural gas infrastructure, the strategy for alleviating future shortages is to concentrate natural gas use in residential and industrial uses, where it makes the most difference in reducing pollution. The modern ultra-supercritical coal-fired electrical power plants that China is building are not as clean as natural gas turbines, but they are far cleaner than the very small burners, so it is seen as making sense to concentrate coal mostly in electrical power generation, as is now done in developed countries.

Lauri Myllyvirta, a coal and air pollution expert at Greenpeace in Beijing, said: "Shifting small boilers or household heating from coal to gas definitely leads to big air quality gains. That is the sector where natural gas makes most sense in China. If you look at what happened in the last winter, the local policies were very focused on gas. In the next years, the policy is more balanced between geothermal, biomass, electric heating and gas. I definitely think that that broader mix, including emissions-free sources as well, will be better and might avoid some of the problems we saw this winter."

He also said that the government's 2021 heating plan, which stiffens building insulation standards, will require retrofitting the insulation of rural houses, so gas demand from heating will decline. This ties in with the broader policy of upgrading industrial transformation.

"If you think about where China is at right now, there is a need to scale down construction and the reliance on infrastructure projects and real estate to drive growth. At this point, training some of the people in the construction sector to do retrofits would make an enormous amount of sense," Myllyvirta said.

Fewer accidents, too

The most direct beneficiaries of the switch from coal to natural gas for rural heating and industry are the villagers and workers who no longer have to work with coal or breathe its emissions.

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