To heat or not to heat?

I’ve recently discovered that my 5 month-old son is quite sensitive to cold. As temperatures have dipped in Beijing, he, my husband and I have therefore had two weeks of sleepless nights.

But why haven’t we switched on the heating to avoid these sleepless nights? Well, in Beijing, November 15th and March 15th are dates to remember. They are, respectively, the day that a huge network of heating for millons of Beijing’s residents is turned on and off by the local government. 

There are similar arrangements in many other Chinese cities – although, for example, the government doesn’t provide heating infrastructure in Shanghai at all because temperatures there remain higher than northern cities. Also, the specific switch-on and off dates vary. 

For us in Beijing though, November 15th this year has come just that little bit too late. So we have all wrapped up in warm clothing, and few days ago we bought a small electric heater that we can target towards our baby and get some sleep. 

But there is still a lingering problem, at least until November 15th. And that’s the fact that our small actions these last few cold days have been quite inefficient in energy use, and contributed to higher carbon emissions globally. Indeed, our preference to switch on the heating earlier – if we had had the choice – would have been even worse!

This conundrum – driven by individual, short-term choice – is very typical when it comes to climate change action. Countries that only have small-scale centralised systems, such as Canada or the US, have poor efficiency and carbon use ratios. More choice often means worse climate outcomes.

So is Beijing’s system of coordinated residential heating the future around the world? Yes and no…

It turns out centralised heating arrangements already go beyond China. It’s typical in Eastern Europe, and Denmark relies on “district heating” for over 60% of its population. 

In fact, Denmark’s system is even more efficient than China’s because it uses relatively more “Combined Heat and Power” – or “CHP” – which pumps residual heat from industries nearby that would otherwise be wasted into people’s homes. Here in China, while around 42% of the heat comes from CHP, almost all the rest comes from coal, meaning high carbon emissions. Russia has the same problem.

There are also other modifications that can be made to centralised systems – for example they can be made “smart” – to link to other energy systems, and also reduce or increase heat provision depending on thermostats in homes. A great deal of work is ongoing to explore these options – by the UN, Groups of Cities, and many other organisations, including in China.

Just yesterday, we found out that the government has now turned on the heating in Beijing at low levels – because temperatures fell below zero for five consecutive days. In addition, the heating will be turned on full-blast two days earlier than the usual date.

So, it looks like we will have no more cold, sleepless nights. But thankfully for the climate, we won’t have to choose to avoid them.

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