Decades of economic growth have polluted the air. Photo: Reuters

Air quality rule changes put heat on local authorities

Proposed amendments to national legislation could also pave the way for caps on coal use

Legislators on the mainland are considering changes to the air pollution law that could give the state new powers to punish negligent local authorities and industrial enterprises and provide a legal mandate to impose caps on coal consumption.

Amendments to the country's 15-year-old Air Pollution Law are expected to be approved this week by the National People's Congress, the country's legislature, and will make local governments directly responsible for failing to meet air quality targets.

The ruling Communist Party has acknowledged the damage that decades of untrammelled economic growth have done to the country's skies, rivers and soil, and it is now trying to equip its environmental inspection offices with greater powers and more resources to tackle persistent polluters and the local governments that protect them.

"Local governments will become responsible to assess and meet standards by a certain time," said Tonny Xie, director of the Clean Air Alliance of China, which has been involved in consultations on the law.

"Previously, there was one sentence in the law about 'making plans' to treat air pollution, rather than 'achieving plans'."

A 31-page draft includes sections on controlling pollution from coal combustion and will provide a legal basis for the establishment of consumption caps and restrictions on low-grade imports, but legislators continue to debate the precise details.

"We have been lobbying for the inclusion of a specific timeline for coal consumption to peak, but this won't be included," a source with an environmental group involved in consultations said.

Coal is the country's biggest source of air pollution, accounting for about two-thirds of total primary energy use.

According to a notice yesterday from the Ministry of Environmental Protection, legislators were still deliberating on whether to include clauses banning the direct combustion of low-grade coal as well as new standards for fuel oil.

The draft law gives the central government the ability to suspend local authority powers to approve new projects if they fail to meet pollution targets.

It bans companies from temporarily switching off polluting equipment during inspections and outlaws other behaviour designed to distort emission readings.

It also included provisions to limit pollution from industry and motor vehicles, though legislators have already excised a clause allowing local governments to set their own restrictions on car use, Xinhua said.

The new Environmental Protection Law, which came into force at the beginning of this year, put an end to the "maximum fine" system that allowed companies to pollute with impunity once they had paid a limited penalty.

It also puts them at risk of criminal penalties should they continue to break rules.

According to the environment ministry, concentrations of hazardous breathable particles known as PM2.5 fell 17 per cent in the first half to 58 micrograms per cubic metre, but China doesn't expect to meet the state standard of 35mcg until 2030.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Air quality rule changes put heat on local authorities