Shen and another villager wait to pick up coal that falls from overfilled coal trucks in northern Hebei province, China’s largest steel-making region. (Photo: AP)
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China’s Poor Burn Coal to Fight Biting Cold, Adding to Smog Crisis

An overloaded coal truck rumbles down from the steel factory and hits a bump. Waiting by the roadside, a farmer swaddled in thick, cotton-padded winter clothing scrambles into onrushing traffic to pick up the pieces.

Four hours a day, four days a week, the villager, whose surname is Shen, comes to a spot near her home. A thousand little bumps in the road keep Shen and her husband from freezing in winter.

Villager’s Plight

Scavenging coal keeps the villagers warm, and sometimes they have enough left over to sell.

"If I don't come out here, I stay cold," Shen says as she drops a few more recovered chunks into a sooty burlap sack. In one winter, she could burn more than 2 tonnes of coal, worth more than 1,800 yuan ($260).

Across vast swaths of northern China’s countryside, residents go to great lengths to burn untreated coal in home stoves despite government efforts to ban the practice and introduce cleaner — but costlier — types of coal or electrical heating.

Some villagers are unconvinced that the coal they burn contributes much to the country's air quality problems.

Look at the steel mill. How much coal does it burn a day? The 400 households in our little village, how much coal do we burn? Look at our chimney. That little bit of smoke is called pollution?
Yao Junhua, Farmer

"We ordinary people are comparatively poor. We want to buy a few pieces of good coal, save some money. We don't want to spend money on coal we can't light," says Yao Junhua.

Household Coal-Burning Increases Pollution

A truck leaves with metal products from the sprawling factory complex  in Qianan. (Photo: AP)
A truck leaves with metal products from the sprawling factory complex in Qianan. (Photo: AP)

Experts say coal-fired power plants and steel and cement mills are the main contributors to year-round smog. But household coal-burning in rural areas is a major cause of the spike in pollution during winter, when thick, grey soup-like clouds of dust smother Chinese cities, often forcing highways and airports to close.

Government’s Move

Authorities in Hebei province announced in September that they would ban household coal-burning in nearly 4,000 villages near the capital by late 2017, according to state media.

While residents in poor parts of Beijing get subsidies for using cleaner-burning coal or switching to electricity, such incentives are unheard-of in some other parts of the country.

The government has sought to clamp down on the coal market. Market supply has been meagre and prices have risen since authorities cracked down on the sale of coal for private use in recent months.

Shen runs to pick up coal that fell from overfilled coal trucks. (Photo: AP)
Shen runs to pick up coal that fell from overfilled coal trucks. (Photo: AP)
Coal-burning has been blamed for the tiny, toxic PM 2.5 particles that caused an estimated 366,000 premature deaths in China in 2013.
Wang Shuxiao, environmental expert at Tsinghua University

Wang said cleaner coal would theoretically emit 50 to 80 percent fewer particles than untreated coal, but the process of switching is slow.

"The switch is happening. It's just not happening as fast as we want," Wang said.