Vice-Premier Li Keqiang vowed to make environmental protection a development priority, and step up efforts to stem degradation and pollution problems resulting from runaway economic expansion.
He appealed to local authorities to seek a more balanced growth path by turning to clean energy and low carbon sectors, and addressing acute environmental woes such as persistent smog in urban areas.
His remarks, at the opening of a five-yearly national conference of environmental officials in Beijing yesterday, coincided with the release of the nation's new five-year pollution control blueprint.
Premier Wen Jiabao had been rumoured to deliver the keynote speech at the meeting but did not show up. Environmental officials and reporters said his absence came as a big surprise as he had initially agreed to attend and the gathering had been rescheduled several times to fit with his availability.
Li admitted that despite the government's much-touted environmental campaign, 'it remained an arduous task to control and reverse degradation' and worsening pollution woes, according to a report by China Central Television.
The vice-premier, who has been widely tipped to succeed Wen in 2013, said Beijing would pursue conservation through steady economic development in the coming decade.
Senior environmental officials have voiced concerns about the prospects for Beijing's much-talked-about shift towards economic restructuring and quality development, given local authorities' unbridled pursuit of rapid growth. Li, however, said conservation would be an effective weapon to check reckless growth, which threatened to derail sustainable development.
He stressed the government's aim to cut energy waste and carbon emissions, and to continue to push for the expansion of the clean-energy sector, which he estimated would see an economic output of more than 10 trillion yuan (HK$12.19 trillion) in the next five years. He also urged local authorities to accelerate the pace of upgrading the outdated air pollution standards and prepare themselves for the release of smog-related pollutants, notably fine particles.
According to the blueprint, released yesterday on the ministry's website, Beijing plans to spend 3.4 trillion yuan between this year and 2015 to clean up the environment and prevent further degradation.
The amount, in yuan, that Beijing plans to spend by 2015 to clean up the environment and prevent further degradation