CHINA, the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, has ordered companies in its most polluting industries to cut emissions by 30 per cent over the next four years.
The directive, which will compel firms to improve their pollution control equipment and will fine those responsible for excessive emissions, is designed to defuse growing public anger at the country's appalling environmental record. It is seen as the first stage of President Xi Jinping's promised reforms to reduce atmospheric pollution and raise food and water safety standards.
"Reducing air pollution is about people's welfare and the country's economic future," the State Council said in a statement.
"On the one hand, smog is visible and affects the life of everyone, rich and poor. It has proven that environmental crises can stir controversy and greatly undermine social stability."
China has seen a number of recent demonstrations - particularly among its growing middle class - against plans to build chemical plants in cities across the country. Sixteen of the world's 20 most polluted cities are Chinese, and in the first three months of 2013 levels of two atmospheric pollutants in Beijing - nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter between 2.5 and 10 micrometers in diameter, known as PM10 - were 30 per cent higher than at the same time last year. In January, the Chinese capital saw levels of PM2.5 - particles below 2.5 micrometers in diameter - hit concentrations equivalent to those during the notorious peasouper fogs of 1950s London.
A Deutsche Bank report on air pollution in China released earlier this month called for significant policy changes. It said China should sharply reduce the growth in coal consumption and new cars, and massively increase investment in cleaner energies - gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind and solar - and subways and rail.
In a meeting chaired by Premier Li Keqiang, the State Council approved 10 anti-pollution measures, including a drive to speed up the installation of pollution control equipment on small, coal-fuelled refineries, measures to curb the growth of high-energy-consuming industries such as steel, cement, aluminium and glass, and reducing emissions per unit of GDP in key industries by at least 30 per cent by the end of 2017.
The measures also call for improved indicators used to evaluate the environmental impact of new projects and deny administrative approvals, financing, land and other support to projects that fail to meet higher environmental standards.
The Communist Party is concerned that a growing awareness of industrial pollution among China's city dwellers - and their willingness to vocalise their displeasure - threatens a breakdown in social order.
In February the environment ministry announced six heavily polluting industries, including iron, steel, petrochemicals and cement, would have to comply gradually with "special" emissions standards, but details of what those standards would be were unclear. Announcing the new measures, the State Council said local governments should shoulder general responsibilities for local air quality.
The measures emerged from a study session of the Politburo of the central ruling body of the Communist Party, the China Daily reported.
President Xi Jinping pledged that China will not sacrifice the environment for temporary economic growth. His government has also committed to support China's troubled solar power industry, despite problems with overcapacity and ongoing trade disputes with the US and Europe.
The State Council said that provincial governments will be assessed on how well they manage to cut air pollution, and smog will be considered a public emergency to which local governments have to respond.