China’s ‘clean heating’ policies may have saved thousands of lives: study

The implementation of “clean heating” policies has dramatically improved air quality in northern China — likely preventing about 23,000 premature deaths last year alone, a new study has found.

Concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) from heating activities dropped by 41.3 percent from 2015 to 2021 in Beijing and 27 other surrounding cities, according to the study, published on Wednesday in Environmental Science & Technology.

This pollution plunge in “2+26 cities” was nearly four times bigger than that of other northern Chinese cities, which use lower levels of clean fuels, the researchers found.

The 2+26 cohort includes Beijing, Tianjin and 26 cities in the Hebei, Shanxi, Shandong and Henan provinces.

Northern municipalities outside the 2+26 group only reduced their pollution levels by 12.9 percent during the same 2015-2021 window, according to the study.

“We showed that heating in northern China was a major source of air pollution,” corresponding author Zongbo Shi, a professor of atmospheric biochemistry at the University of Birmingham, said in a statement.

“However, clean heating policies have caused the annual PM 2.5 in mainland China to reduce significantly between 2015 and 2021, with significant public health benefits,” Shi added.

Rural areas of China have historically burned biomass in addition to using central heating — with both biomass and coal burning leading to severe haze episodes during the winter, according to the study.

But in 2013, China introduced its Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan, which accelerated the use of centralized and district heating and encouraged a switch to clean fuels, the authors noted.

Four years later, the Chinese central government issued a Clean Winter Heating Plan for northern China, aimed at increasing the region’s share of clean heating to 50 percent by 2019 and 70 percent by 2021, compared to a 2016 baseline scenario.

Within the urban areas of the 2+26 cities, the share of clean heating was supposed to surpass 90 percent by 2019 and reach 100 percent by 2021, according to the 2017 plan.

That plan also defined “clean heating” as heating supplies that run on certain lower-emission fuels, a 2021 study in the Journal of Cleaner Production explained.

Some such fuels include natural gas, electricity, geothermal, biomass, solar energy, industrial waste heat, nuclear energy and so-called clean coal — coal whose carbon emissions are captured during the burning process.

The researchers estimated that clean heating policies helped avoid 23,556 premature deaths in 2021.

In total, they found that winter heating from 2015 to 2021 accounted for about 2.8 percent and 1.6 percent of premature deaths in northern and mainland China, respectively.

Meanwhile, they stressed that winter heating can increase death rates associated with exposure to ozone — creating secondary pollution risks across northern China.

The potential to improve public health conditions by abating heating-related particulate pollution therefore remains significant, the authors noted.

“Clean heating policies in northern China not only reduced air pollution but also greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to China’s push for carbon neutrality,” co-author Robert Elliott, an applied economist at the University of Birmingham, said in a statement.

“Decarbonizing heating should remain a key part of China’s carbon neutrality strategy that not only reduces air pollution but also provide significant public health benefits,” Elliott added.

Tags China clean heating

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