The mainland yesterday unveiled its first comprehensive plan to fight air pollution, promising significant improvements in air quality in key regions by 2017.
The measures announced by the world's largest carbon emitter include closing down polluting factories, improving fuel quality and reducing overreliance on coal.
Three major city clusters around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have been told to reduce levels of PM2.5 - the tiny airborne pollutants most harmful to human health and a major cause of smog - by 25, 20 and 15 per cent respectively between 2013 and 2017, according to the plan issued by the State Council.
Beijing, which was shrouded in thick smog for months last winter, has a specific goal to limit its yearly average of PM2.5 to around 60mg per cubic metre by 2017. This is still well above the national standard of 35, and the safe limit of 10 recommended by the World Health Organisation.
As a major measure to improve energy and economic structure, the plan aims to cut coal consumption in the total energy mix to below 65 per cent by 2017, down from 66.8 per cent in 2012.
Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, the Yangtze River Delta and the Pearl River Delta - key industrial regions - should "strive for a reduction in total coal consumption", the plan said, and no new coal-fired power plants would be approved in these regions.
Professor Chai Fahe , vice-president of the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, said the plan, which had been delayed by more than three months, could quicken the pace of the clean-up without sacrificing economic growth.
But critics said the plan fell short of expectations, such as quantified coal caps in key areas.
Dr Yang Fuqiang, senior Beijing-based adviser with the Natural Resources Defence Council, said municipalities such as Beijing and Tianjin should have aimed higher and cut PM2.5 by more than 25 per cent, as they had more resources. Shandong - a big coal consuming province perennially cloaked in smog - was left out in the PM 2.5 reduction scheme altogether.
Li Yan, Greenpeace East Asia climate and energy campaign manager, said the targets to reduce dependence on coal and boost the use of renewable energy were largely in line with those in the national five-year plan for energy sector till 2015. Still, he hoped to see quantified coal reduction targets for the three major economic regions.
"Without specific and binding targets to reduce coal consumption … whether the regional PM2.5 reduction targets could be met still remains to be seen."
Yang agreed, and pointed out that resistance from local governments and industrial sectors to such caps was high. "There was a large gap between the central government's goal [for coal caps] and the offers made by provincial authorities," he said.
Beijing and Hebei province have promised to cut coal consumption by 13 and 40 million tons respectively by 2017.