BEIJING — After a year of record high pollution that has won Beijing unwanted international acclaim and domestic disdain, China has set ambitious clean air targets and ordered cities to cut toxic emissions by up to 25 percent in the next three years.
The move is seen as the latest signal of Beijing's resolve to impose stricter environmental standards on its provinces, which so far have been largely judged on their economic record alone.
The targets include the reduction of two kinds of toxic particles, PM 2.5 and PM 10, which are the main pollutant matters in the air.
According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, which issued the targets Tuesday, emission cuts will vary between regions taking into account both the level of pollution recorded and the area's economic needs.
Areas relatively more polluted and developed like Beijing, Tianjin and the neighboring province of Hebei are subject to the highest reduction, and will have to decrease their PM 2.5 concentration by 25 percent by 2017. Other areas, such as Inner Mongolia, will have to reduce PM 2.5 by 10 percent.
Analysts in China have welcomed the move, which they say shows the central government's resolve to address one of the biggest health concerns for urban dwellers in China. But some are cautious about whether cities can fall in line.
Ma Yongliang, an environmental professor at Tsinghua University, says the targets will be difficult to reach since the country is still pushing for economic growth in many of its underdeveloped regions.
“The demand for resources to fuel the economy is not going to change, and demand for coal is actually increasing,” he says.
Coal, China's largest source of energy, is one of the biggest contributors to air pollution.
The government has been trying to diversify its power mix and put caps on future coal production. But the cost and scarcity of cleaner resources such as natural gas, solar energy and wind have left coal the most palatable option for fast and cheap development.
“To cut coal, it would take a complete re-adjusting of China's economic structure and that in turn would have a negative impact on growth,” Ma says.
Yet such a re-adjustment is underway, at least judging by the pronouncements of many top Chinese officials.
In December, the Central Organization Department - a powerful organ of the party in charge of managing cadres' promotions - issued a directive explicitly stating that the routine review of local administrators will not be based on GDP growth alone.
Although the document did not offer an alternative measure that included environmental targets, other departments - such as the Environmental Protection Ministry - testified to an increased focus on combating the ill effects of industrial development.
China's air pollution, which a World Health Organization study says is responsible for up to 500,000 premature deaths each year, is one of the most visible downsides of China's staggering GDP growth.
Pan Xiaochuan, a professor at the Beijing University School of Public Health, says although the new air targets do not state it explicitly, officials will be directly responsible for their area's air quality.
“They have personally signed an agreement, and if they fail to reach the target, they will be held accountable,” Pan says. “Not only might they not get promoted, but they could even be removed from their post.”
Tuesday's paper offered some advice on how to cut air pollutants, including reducing coal use, eliminating outdated industrial capacity and managing car use.
Last year was an especially bad year for air across China. Despite efforts by the government, many cities experienced record levels of pollution that prompted some localities to shut down schools and businesses.
In the capital Beijing, one in six days was heavily polluted according to the Chinese media.