The Chinese government has relented on a policy banning the use of coal to heat homes after cold weather and increased demand drove up gas prices.
The environment ministry has told regions in northern China that have not converted to gas or electric heating they can continue to burn coal for the time being.
The policy against the industrial and domestic use of coal for heating, aimed at cutting the choking smog that blankets much of the north, has caused rationing of natural gas in some provinces and a jump in prices.
State-owned China National Petroleum Corp has warned it may be unable to guarantee supply if this winter is particularly harsh. Other energy companies have taken the expensive step of renting additional gas storage facilities off the northern coast.
“Villages that have not converted to gas may still use coal for heating, or other substitute fuels,” the ministry said in a statement on Thursday. It called for a stable gas supply to areas that had already converted to the fuel.
“Civilian use of gas must be prioritised over others, including industry,” it added.
The curbs on coal are part of Beijing’s push to meet environmental targets this year. Measures to improve air quality around Beijing involve moving heavy industry to the hinterland or switching coal-dependent factories to gas or connecting them to the electricity grid.
The port city of Tianjin has removed 10,000 coal-fired boilers in recent months, and the province of Hebei, which rings Beijing, has removed 33,000.
Efforts to prevent rural people from burning low-quality coal have varied between provinces. The Beijing government offers homeowners lower electricity rates from 8pm, but some migrant workers complain the discount is not being passed on by their landlords.
In Shandong province and the mountains north of Beijing, villagers can buy coal that burns cleaner than coal powder briquettes. Indoor pollution from the briquettes contributes more to illness and death than outdoor pollution, according to the World Health Organization.
In Hebei province, officials have converted 149,000 homes to electric heating as of November 10, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
In villages in southern Hebei, confiscation teams from local government went door-to-door to force residents to switch from coal, said a homeowner surnamed Li. “They take your briquettes and the heater and after that they don’t care. It’s up to you,” he said. Many neighbours had little option but to buy electric heaters.
However, some local governments around Hengshui were turning a blind eye to the use of charcoal in homes, Mr Li said. “They can’t freeze every peasant in Hebei.”
Additional reporting by Archie Zhang
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