Li Keqiang sees fighting pollution as top task as smog spreads

China's Premier Li Keqiang is seen on a screen delivering the government work report during the opening ceremony of the National People's Congress. Photo: Reuters

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said on March 5 that pollution is the nature's warning against China's reckless and inefficient economic development and the government vows to fight smog by removing high-emission cars and closing coal-burning furnaces.

"The construction of a good ecological environment is vital for our people's life and the future of our nation. Environmental protection is the Chinese government's top task that must be completed with great determination," Li said in his government work report delivered to the annual session of the 12th National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing.

Two weeks before the annual session of the NPC, Beijing was blanketed in hazardous smog that lasted for more than a week, forcing the authorities to raise the haze alert from "yellow" to "orange". The capital city adopts a four-tiered air pollution alert system with "orange" being its second highest level.

Li's remarks demonstrate that the Chinese government views fighting pollution as one of its major tasks after recognizing public discontent over serious air pollution and its impact on human health.

"It is time for the Chinese government to make up its mind to battle pollution, as it matters to the future of our country," said Jiang Kejuan, a researcher with the Energy Research Institute of the National Development and Reform Commission, adding that a great many environmentally friendly measures have been adopted in many Chinese cities, especially in Beijing, where coal-fired facilities will be totally shut down in the future.

Li said that China will reduce emissions of PM10 and PM2.5, the small particulates that are partly blamed for soaring rates of cancer and respiratory diseases, and will establish an air pollution prevention and control system that will be maintained by joint efforts of the government, enterprises and citizens.

China will reduce energy consumption by more than 3.9 percent this year by imposing a ceiling on energy use, launch a clean-water action plan to protect the sources of drinking water and encourage the construction of smart power grid and use of green energy, the premier added.

"We will declare war on pollution with the same determination we used to fight poverty," Li said.

Balancing economic growth and pollution control

China's gross domestic product grew 7.7 percent in 2013, beating the official target of 7.5 percent but lower than the annual growth target of 8 percent between 2005 and 2011.

Li said in the government work report that China aims to grow its economy by about 7.5 percent in 2014 and to keep consumer inflation around 3.5 percent for the year.

Some analysts said that more measures on pollution control may be a reason why Li set the 2014 GDP growth target at around 7.5 percent, with some even arguing that tackling pollution will lead to further slowdown.

"We cannot say with absolute certainty that there is a contradiction between maintaining growth and controlling pollution. Instead, energy saving and pollution control can become a driving force for economic growth, contributing to the optimization of the industrial structure," Jiang said.

Technically speaking, since the start of the 11th five-year plan, when China advocated energy saving and emissions reduction, the costs of using energy-saving technologies have been largely reduced, Jiang added.

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