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Clean Heating Policies Improve Air Quality in Northern China

Clean Heating Policies Improve Air Quality in Northern China
07 February 2023

China’s centralised winter heating strategy has helped to prevent over 23,000 fewer premature deaths in 2021 than in 2015, a new study has revealed.

From 2015 to 2021, Bejing and 27 other cities saw concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) from heating activities reduce by 41.3 per cent - compared with a drop of 12.9 per cent in other northern Chinese cities which use lower levels of clean fuels than the “2+26” cities.

According to the IEA definition, “2+26” cities are located along the pathway through which air pollution in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region transmits.

Researchers from the University of Birmingham and Nankai University, China, published their findings in “Environmental Science & Technology”.


What Are The Clean Heating Policies in China?


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 normally switched on from mid-November to March.

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.

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 “2 + 26” cities 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 emissions from the residential sector.

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.

Corresponding Professor Zongbo Shi, from the University of Birmingham, commented: “Our research demonstrates the effectiveness of China’s clean winter heating policies on reducing PM2.5  – with particular success for the stricter clean heating policies in ‘2 + 26’ cities, which also led to a reduced impact of heating emissions on sulphur dioxide (SO2). These results demonstrate clear air quality benefits from the stricter clean heating policies in ‘2 + 26’ cities.

Co-Author Professor Robert Elliott added “Clean heating policies in northern China not only reduced air pollution but also greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to China’s push for carbon neutrality. However, we found that heating remains an important source of air pollution in northern China, particularly in cities that are not part of the ‘2+26’ cluster. 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.”

Picture: a photograph of Beijing's skyline at night. Image Credit: Unsplash

Article written by Ella Tansley | Published 07 February 2023


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