beijing smog air pollution

China’s clean heating policies cut premature deaths by 23,000, study suggests

The Chinese government’s clean heating policies have improved air quality in northern China and are estimated to have lowered the number of premature deaths by 23,000, a study has claimed.

From 2015 to 2021, the impact of winter heating on China’s capital Beijing and 27 other cities saw concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) from heating activities reduce by 41.3 per cent. This compares favourably with a drop of 12.9 per cent in other northern Chinese cities which used lower levels of clean fuels than those in the Beijing region.

China’s centralised winter heating strategy is one of the world’s largest energy-consumption systems, providing free or heavily subsidised heating to urban residents. The system is usually switched on from mid-November to March each year.

Whilst coal has been the main heating energy source in northern China – accounting for 83 per cent of the total heating area in 2016 – new policies have encouraged the use of cleaner fuels such as gas and electricity, reducing the dependence of urban areas on coal and rural areas on biomass.

The study from researchers in University of Birmingham, UK, and Nankai University, Tianjin, China, found clear air quality benefits from the stricter clean heating policies in the north.

Corresponding professor Zongbo Shi, from the University of Birmingham, said: “Using a novel approach combining machine learning with causal inference, we showed that heating in northern China was a major source of air pollution, increasing annual PM2.5 concentrations by 8.9 µg m-3 in 2015.

“However, clean heating policies have caused the annual PM2.5 in mainland China to reduce significantly between 2015 and 2021, with significant public health benefits.”

Particles in the PM2.5 size range are able to travel deeply into the respiratory tract, reaching the lungs. Exposure to fine particles can cause short-term health effects such as eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, coughing, sneezing, runny nose and shortness of breath.

In addition to central heating, biomass burning was often used for heating in rural areas. Coal and biomass burning were often associated with severe haze episodes during the heating periods in northern China.

In 2013, China introduced the 'Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan', which accelerated the use of centralised and district heating, encouraging the switch to cleaner fuels.

In 2017, the Chinese central government issued its 'Clean Winter Heating Plan for Northern China', which aimed to increase the region’s share of clean heating to 50 per cent by 2019 and 70 per cent by 2021 compared to the base scenario in 2016.

Additionally, the share of clean heating in northern China was to exceed 90 per cent in urban areas, reaching 100 per cent by 2021. In 2018, a three-year action plan to fight air pollution was issued. All these plans led to substantial air pollutant emission reductions from the residential sector.

Co-author professor Robert Elliott 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.

“Decarbonising 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.”

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