SHANGHAI (Reuters) - A new winter plan to curb emissions in northern China will not be enough to reverse last year’s sharp increase, official data shows, raising concerns that a weakening economy is eroding Beijing’s resolve to tackle pollution.
In an action plan for October 2019 to March 2020, China said 28 smog-prone northern cities, including the capital Beijing, would have to curb emissions of lung-damaging small particles known as PM2.5 by an average of 4% from a year ago.
The particles are a major component of the smog that engulfs China’s northern regions over winter as people switch on coal-fired heating systems.
However, the targeted decrease is 1.5 percentage points lower than an earlier draft, and would not be enough to reverse a 6.5% surge throughout the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region over the same period last year.
Last year’s jump came even though authorities targeted a cut of 3%, with efforts derailed by warmer weather and an increase in industrial activity after regions were given more flexibility to devise their own anti-smog measures.
This year’s lowered ambitions mean that as many as 15 of the 28 cities could have higher levels of smog than two years ago, even if they meet their targets, said Lauri Myllyvirta, senior analyst with Greenpeace.
An environment ministry official acknowledged last week that China’s pollution situation was still “serious”, with PM2.5 in the region up 1.9% in the first three quarters.
In setting this year’s targets, China had to consider “maintaining stability” as well as “actual working conditions” in each location, the official said in a statement, adding that there were risks the goals would not be met.
Only four of the 28 cities - Beijing, Handan, Cangzhou and Jining - met targets last winter, official data showed.
PM2.5 levels in Anyang, China’s most polluted city last winter, soared 13.7% last year. It is targeting a 6.5% cut this year. Nearby Puyang will target a 6% fall this year, even though its average PM2.5 surged more than 20% a year ago.
The environment ministry has been at pains to say China’s “war on pollution” would not be affected by a slowing economy, with local governments no longer judged merely on crude economic growth.
Heavy industrial Hebei province, home to eight of the 28 cities, promised on Thursday to guarantee rules were enforced, adding that it would “strictly hold to account” any grassroots officials found responsible for worsening air quality.
The statement came as the region was once again plunged in smog amid soaring levels of PM2.5 concentrations.
But there have already been signs Beijing will compromise, with Premier Li Keqiang saying earlier this month that China remains dependent on coal and will encourage clean and green mining.
China’s coal imports are also set to rise more than 10% this year, driven by loosened customs restrictions aimed at boosting the economy, analysts said.
“The lower air quality targets seem to reflect changed priorities,” said Myllyvirta. “The policymakers have let smokestack industries rebound, even if it means slowing progress on air quality.”
Reporting by David Stanway; editing by Richard Pullin