BEIJING (Reuters) - China has ordered three northern cities to stop approving new projects that would add to air pollution after they failed to meet air quality targets this past winter.
The mayors of Handan in Hebei province and Jincheng and Yangquan in Shanxi province were given the orders after being summoned to a meeting at the Ministry of Ecology and Environment in Beijing on Thursday to account for their actions during a recent campaign against smog.
The meeting came after the cities failed to meet targets to cut levels of hazardous, breathable particles known as PM2.5 over the October 2017 to March 2018 period. Reuters was the first foreign media organisation allowed to attend such a meeting, the ministry said.
"We will continue to fight against air pollution in the name of dignity and as our mission," said Handan's mayor, Wang Litong, who sat with the other mayors facing a line of eight environmental officials in a crowded meeting hall at the ministry.
China launched a campaign last October to reduce average concentrations of PM2.5 by between 10-25 per cent in 28 northern cities in an effort hit 2013-2017 air quality targets.
However, though Handan was ordered to reduce traffic, cut industrial output and curb coal use in a bid to cut PM2.5 by 20 per cent over the period, it only achieved an average reduction of 15.7 percent.
Handan, a major steel- and chemical-producing city, also saw average PM2.5 concentrations increase 4.9 per cent to 86 micrograms per cubic metre in 2017, with one district experiencing a 19.7 per cent rise.
Wang, the Handan mayor, said in a prepared speech that the city would make big sacrifices to tackle pollution.
"We will cut off our own hands to wage the last-ditch battle," he said.
He said the city planned to close another 300,000 tonnes of steelmaking capacity, 1.1 million tonnes of coal-producing capacity and 268 megawatts of coal-fired power by August. He said three officials have been fired and 14 given warnings.
The three cities have been ordered to come up with a detailed plan to "rectify" the situation, which they must submit to the environment ministry within 20 days, said Liu Changgen, a ministry official.
The major of Jincheng, Liu Feng, said the major coal and gas city would "rather sacrifice GDP growth" in order to curb air pollution, noting that Jincheng's gross domestic product fell 9 percent as a result of production curbs in the first quarter, while fixed-asset investment slumped 41 percent.
After struggling for years to force growth-obsessed local governments to toe the line, China's beefed-up environment ministry now has the authority to hold officials to account for failing to comply with pollution policies.
The war on pollution is now a key performance indicator that could determine an official's promotion prospects, and local authorities said last year that senior officials could even face dismissal if they failed to meet the winter targets.
China has already held more than 2,000 local government officials to account after they were found to have violated environmental rules during extensive nationwide inspections ordered by Beijing beginning in 2016.
However, while hundreds of officials were given official reprimands, only a handful were actually fired or prosecuted.