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How Baoding city in Hebei copes with month-long alert for smog

  • Zheng Jinran and Zhang Yu

    The Jakarta Post

| Thu, December 31, 2015 | 11:17 am
How Baoding city in Hebei copes with month-long alert for smog A police traffic officer wears a mask at a crossroads in Baoding, Hebei province, on Dec 25. Lingering smog prompted local authorities to launch a month-long pollution red alert in the city. (China Daily/ANN/Zou Hong)

A police traffic officer wears a mask at a crossroads in Baoding, Hebei province, on Dec 25. Lingering smog prompted local authorities to launch a month-long pollution red alert in the city. (China Daily/ANN/Zou Hong)

On Christmas Eve, Liu Hao bought a larger-than-usual amount of stock for his roadside store, not because business is booming as New Year approaches, but as a result of license plate restrictions on the use of vehicles that mean he is only able to visit the warehouse on alternate weekdays.

For the past month, Liu has only been allowed to use his small van two or three days per week, one of a series of measures imposed by the government of Baoding, Hebei province.

Since November, thick, potentially injurious smog, has frequently blanketed cities in North and Central China, sparking a rash of red alerts that have seen cities limit industrial production and vehicle use for several days at a time.

Residents seem happy to accept the temporary inconvenience for better air quality.

However, unlike the red alerts issued in Beijing and other cities in Hebei, Baoding has extended the hard-hitting restrictions for the whole of December, "to improve air quality and protect public health, to better reduce the frequent severe smog in winter caused by soaring coal consumption and to lift the city from bottom place in the national air quality rankings", according to a document released by the local authorities.

Moreover, the restrictions imposed in the city are far tougher than those in place during red alerts in Beijing.

Baoding has suspended production at 2,045 large companies in heavily polluting industries, ranging from coal- and gas-fired plants with excessive emissions levels, to mining and aggregate extraction and processing. Even the thermal power plants that provide the city's heating are subject to the restrictions.

In addition, 562 construction sites, which generate large amounts of dust, were ordered to suspend their work for the month.

"Although my son's primary school is still open to students, all outdoor exercise has been suspended," Liu, the shop owner, said.

"I can't remember exactly how many days the smog has persisted," he added.

Retiree Zhang Jun said he hasn't seen a clear improvement in air quality in the month since the tough restrictions were implemented. "It will be hard for younger people to live a long life, given the severe pollution," the 81-year-old said.

In the past two weeks, the city has seen 10 polluted days in succession, when the air quality index regularly topped 100, with a peak reading of 485-the most hazardous level-on Dec 25, according to data from the China National Environmental Monitoring Center.

Baoding, which last year was listed last in air quality rankings for 74 major cities, had set a goal of lifting itself off the lowest rung of the ladder when this year's ranking is published sometime in January. That goal is now unlikely to be achieved.

"We had narrowed the gap between us and the second-last city, and air quality had improved, but the lingering smog in December has dragged us down again," said Wang Jinfu, deputy head of the Baoding Environmental Protection Bureau, who admitted that the city is now likely to remain at the bottom of the rankings.
Production restrictions

For more than 10 years, Zhang Qiuhe, 48, has operated a plant that produces plastic goods, such as containers, in the Jingxiu district of Baoding. The four-week production delay has left him with a lengthy backlog of orders to fill.

The production process at Zhang's factory generates volatile organic compounds, which are major air pollutants, so the government ordered the factory to suspend production.

"The suspension could reduce our sales by about 9 million yuan ($1.4 million) because December is a busy production period," he said.

Most of his 80-plus employees have spent December at home, although a few have stayed to guard the premises.

"I still have to pay their regular salaries, because they are skilled technicians and workers, and that's important in this industry," Zhang said.

In addition to the current restrictions, the plant had already suspended work for about six weeks to limit air pollution in preparation for major national events, such as the military parade held in Beijing on Sept 3.

Many major and State-owned companies have also been ordered to adhere to the restrictions.

They are "playing leading roles in following the rules", said Zhao Jianying, deputy chief engineer at the coal-fired Datang Baoding Co-Generation Power Plant, which provides central heating services across an area of 20 square kilometers.

Under the restrictions, the plant is required to lower coal consumption, but it also needs to guarantee enough electricity to power urban heating services.

The company has cut the amount of coal it uses, and has reduced its generating capacity by 480,000 kilowatt hours per day, Zhao said.

The government has been monitoring the effects of the restrictions on industrial production, and plans to implement preferential tax and funding policies to help the companies most affected.

"We have treated air pollution as a priority and an urgent task in the government's work list," said Wang, of the environmental protection bureau, adding that the measures would affect economic growth, but it's a price worth paying because the cause is a worthy one.

More coal, more pollution

Baoding has conducted a thorough analysis of the sources of airborne pollution, the results of which will be published soon.

"Coal consumption has been the major contributor to the smog in our city," Wang said. Dust and exhaust emissions from vehicles are the next biggest offenders, he added.

The problem is directly linked to the city's low urbanization rate. Although the city has just 3 million residents, more than 8 million people live in the suburban areas, and coal is their only source of winter heating, according to the environmental bureau.

Coal-fired boilers in Baoding's rural households consume 10 million metric tons of coal every year, about half the city's total consumption and equal to that used by industry and other activities.

Though the suburban areas only account for half of the city's coal use, they are responsible for the majority of the pollutants emitted.

That's because many factories have installed equipment to reduce pollutants, cutting emissions by 80 percent, while rural households discharge pollutants directly into the atmosphere, Wang said.

In addition, fewer than 40 percent of urban residents in Baoding, the largest city in Hebei, have central heating, so the majority of urban residents also use coal to heat their homes, adding to the volume of pollutants discharged into the air, the environment bureau said.

The road ahead

The emergency measures will be lifted as planned on Jan 1, and the Baoding government does not intend to use production restrictions as a long-term solution to pollution, Wang said.

Instead, long-term measures will focus on reducing coal consumption by upgrading the infrastructure and optimizing the structure of energy consumption, by promoting the use of natural gas and "green" fuels, according to the environmental bureau.

In May, a gas pipeline to connect households in about 100 villages in the city's urban districts will be completed, and coal-fired boilers will be phased out.

"In 2016, we expect to see the air quality improve, thanks to shrinking coal consumption in urban areas," Wang said.

However, it is not possible to control coal consumption in some rural areas, partly because the government can't afford to subsidize residents' purchases of high-quality coal, which generates much fewer pollutants.

Chai Fahe, deputy head of the China Research Academy of Environmental Sciences and one of a number of consultants Baoding has invited to help curb air pollution, said the month-long restrictions were not surprising given the mounting pressure from the public and higher-level governments to curb smog.

The integrated development of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei cluster will also provide opportunities for Baoding to improve its air quality, thanks to increased central government funding and the growing use of advanced technologies, he said.

Chai said the city's move to provide gas for a larger number of urban households is an effective method of reducing pollution.

"For rural households, it's better to get rid of the old coal-fired boilers and promote the use of electricity for heating," he said.

Blue sky thinking

Air pollution control measures employed in Hebei province this year:

・ The concentration of PM 2.5-harmful particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns-should fall by 8 percent from last year's level.

・ Coal consumption should be reduced by 5 million metric tons from last year's level.

・ All generating units in coal-fired power plants should upgrade equipment used in dust removal, desulfurization and denitrification to meet the strictest emissions standards.

・ More than 3,740 coal-fired industrial boilers should be upgraded.

・ The popularization rate of central heating in cities should be increased to 74 percent, rising to 100 percent in two years.

・ To boost the amount of "cleaner" energy sources, the province should consume 7.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas per annum. The installed capacity of wind power should rise to 12 million kilowatts, while that of photovoltaic power facilities should rise to 3 million kW.

・ Production of pig iron and steel should be reduced by 5 million tons each, while cement production should fall by 6 million tons.

・ Analyses of pollution source in all cities in the province should be completed.

・ About 15,140 new energy vehicles should be added to the roads, mainly in the public transport system.

Hebei's achievements in the first six months of this year

・ The average concentration of PM 2.5 was 79 micrograms per cubic meter, a reduction of 23.3 percent from the same period last year.

・ Eleven generating units at coal-fired power plants met the strictest emissions standards.

・ From January to May, the consumption of industrial coal was cut by 3.15 million tons, compared with the same period last year.

・ From January to May, 42 boilers were upgraded from coal-fired to natural-gas-fired.

・ The capacity of wind power was increased by 300,000 kW, while that of photovoltaic power rose by 100,000 kW.

・ More than 110,000 "yell-ow label" vehicles-i.e. heavily polluting-and old cars were removed from the roads, and 3,606 new energy vehicles were put into use. (kes)(+)