(August 16 2015, Sunday) — More than 1.2 billion people living in China’s 293 prefecture-level cities will benefit from clean air if the country imposes strict air pollution and environmental protection policies that reduces coal dependence or the mix of cleaner coal.

According to a recent study supported by two US-based non-profit groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the cities are home to 94.2% of China’s 1.3-billion population who account for over 95% of its coal consumption that produce more than 97% of its GDP.

The study was undertaken by researchers at the School of Environment and Natural Resources at China’s Renmin University as part of a joint “coal cap” project initiated by academic, governmental and non-profit groups.

By enforcing strict anti-pollution policies, the study forecasts that China’s urban coal consumption will peak at around 3.2 billion tons of coal equivalent (tce) by 2020. This will affect 34 medium-sized cities that use most of the country’s coal.

Hebei, Shandong, Shanxi, and the Yangtze River Delta regions have China’s highest coal consumption intensity. The biggest coal users are found in the triangle of Beijing, Xi’an and Hangzhou cities, where the country’s air pollution is most concentrated with an abundance of the deadly tiny PM2.5 particles.

“If future urban development follows the current path, it will be difficult for China to break away from its dependence on coal. Coal consumption in 2050 would be three times higher than in 2010, the health of city residents and the environment would continue to worsen, and cities would not improve the quality of life of China’s citizens,” said the study.

A separate study conducted by research group Berkeley Earth is adding weight to the government’s drive to reduce China’s coal dependence with its finding that coal-induced air pollution kills an average 4,000 people a day. The deaths were traced to the heavy presence of PM2.5 particles in Chinese cities produced during the combustion of fossil fuels, particularly coal. The minute particles are known to cause heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer and asthma.