The rural areas surrounding Beijing get cold during the winter, with an average low of 15 degrees Fahrenheit in January.
To cope with the daily chill, millions of farmers and laborers have burned coal to keep warm.
But the coal—especially coal burned in a home furnace—came at the cost of air pollution, not only in the province of Hebei, but in Beijing itself.
In response, according to a story appearing in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, President Xi Jinping announced an initiative to build an “ecological civilization.”
Yet just like plans on the other side of the Pacific to launch a “Green New Deal,” there are consequences that government didn’t anticipate. People can no longer afford to heat their homes, even with government subsidies that are planned for the next three years. And while particulate pollution harms health, medical studies also tell us that cold kills—likely 20 times more people than does heat and about the same as particulate pollution, not all of which is man-made.
Xi, now president for life, rules from atop a one-party state that, theoretically, gives him virtually unlimited centralized power (a thing that some in the U.S. Congress can only dream of). So when the decision came to clean up the air in Beijing, the government went into action, targeting the removal of coal heaters in homes in 60 percent of the region’s rural areas, as well as in all the urban centers—by 2021.
The Green New Deal would take a more languid pace to completely remake the American energy landscape, aiming to hit 100% “clean” energy in 11 years.
Still, the government’s plans appear to have little consideration for people. The sky above Beijing is cleaner (though some skeptics attribute at least some of the pollution improvements to an unadmitted recession hitting the Chinese economy, the result of Xi’s centralizing impulses), though the cost is that poor rural households are unable to use their newly installed natural gas or electric heaters.
The South China Morning Post interviewed a rural construction worker who used to heat his home with three to four metric tons of coal over the winter. The coal would cost about $196, or 4.9% of his annual income of $4,400. Then the government tore out his coal-fired boiler and replaced it with a clean natural gas furnace. So far in the winter of 2018-19, the 50-year-old worker has seen his winter heating bill triple, now consuming 13.3% of his annual income, $587—and that’s while keeping his home far colder than he’d like. In addition, unlike the pile of coal he could stockpile next to his house, supplies of natural gas have been unreliable. Further, he worries, what will happen in three years when the government’s subsidies expire?
In a nearby village where government officials replaced coal with electric heat, the situation is even direr, with one man citing cost of $294 for only two months of heat—and that’s at a price per kilowatt hour at a little less than half of the U.S. average. The man in the electric village admitted that at night, when no one could see the black smoke, he surreptitiously burned coal to keep his children warm. He claimed few of his neighbors even ran their new electric heaters.
In another village, the authorities had removed residential coal heaters but hadn’t yet brought the natural gas heaters online. Communist Party officials then added insult to the cold by patrolling the town with sound trucks, blaring out warnings of the penalties for using coal. Police have even detained men for illegally using “low quality coal” to keep their families warm. People there sleep with all their clothes on.
A new natural gas pipeline from Russia, expected to be completed in 2020, may improve fuel supply reliability and cut costs for some residents.
The South China Morning Post piece concluded with an observation from a Chinese analyst who noted that “Clean energy is not the problem; low wages are.” That means energy and environmental policy must be viewed in the context of tradeoffs in a system with limited resources, which includes not just pollution and the use of natural resources, but also labor and capital.
In America, after the 1973 Arab oil embargo and the subsequent period of stagflation, energy costs rose, making home heating and transportation more costly. More than a million homeowners a year bought airtight wood-burning stoves to provide a lower-cost alternative to heating their homes with electricity, propane, natural gas or heating oil. One of them was in the author’s home in California’s Eastern High Sierra.
Every year, as the snow cover retreated in May, our family would go out on federal land and find dead trees that had toppled over, bringing home enough truckloads to accumulate about three cords of wood. This wood would generate about 45 million BTU of heat which, in an airtight stove, would provide about 36 million BTU of residential heating. This wood would replace about $1,737 in electric heating costs in 2019 dollars.
That airtight wood stove, and scores of others like it, would blanket our village of 350 people with a thin layer of haze on windless days. The unhealthful particulates generated represented a tradeoff with our warm homes and substantial cost savings—money that could be used to buy clothes, invest in a business, or send a child to college. Further, to the extent that the wood smoke increased the odds of lung and heart disease and stroke, a warm home decreased the likelihood of dying from complications of cardiovascular and respiratory stress.
As workers in rural China are painfully discovering, and Americans might, should the $7 trillion Green New Deal become reality, energy, and how we use it, is central to the human condition.