Chinese officials warned they will face punishment if they do not meet air quality targets

A man uses his mobile phone as he walks amid smog in Tianjin, China after the city issued a yellow alert, on Nov 26, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING - To show how serious it is about the battle for blue skies, China has warned officials that those who fail to meet air quality targets will be punished.

The warning comes as the environment ministry released the latest data on Monday (Jan 21) showing that levels of hazardous PM2.5 particulates in Beijing and surrounding cities from October to December last year hit 73 mcg per cu m, or 3 per cent higher than in the same period in 2017.

The level is more than double the 35 mcg per cu m standard that China is aiming to reach.

Mr Liu Bingjiang, head of the environment ministry's atmospheric environment department, pledged to hold officials who did not meet air quality targets accountable.

"Detailed punitive measures" were being formulated, he told reporters on Monday.

"This is a battle for blue skies, and to win, orders must be carried out. Those who fail to meet objectives will be held accountable," Mr Liu said.

The region around Beijing includes the key development region of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, and was one of the dark spots in an otherwise positive report card that showed air quality improving almost across the board.

Air quality statistics released on Monday showed that levels of atmospheric pollutants dropped, except for ozone, which crept ip.

PM2.5 pollutants - fine particles small enough to lodge themselves in the lungs and enter the bloodstream - dropped 9.3 per cent to 39 mcg per cu m.

Since Chinese Premier Li Keqiang declared war on pollution in 2014, the government has unveiled a series of action plans to combat smog. It is currently in the middle of a three-year plan to clean up the air.

Despite improvements, however, Mr Liu said there were still problem areas.

In particular, industrial regions - such as the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, Yangtze River Delta and Fenwei Plain, which includes coal-producing regions in Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces - had emission rates three to five times higher than the national average.

Beijing's efforts to clean up its air come amid an economic slowdown. The ongoing trade war with the United States is also putting downward pressure on the Chinese economy.

China's statistics bureau on Monday said economic growth fell to 6.6 per cent in 2018, the lowest in 28 years.

Asked whether this will affect China's policies against pollution, Mr Liu said that the battle against pollution "must be won no matter what happens".

But he added that the authorities would help businesses find solutions to help them "control their emissions".

Mr Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a non-profit environment research organisation, said the economic pressures would be a big challenge moving forward.

He noted that the reason for the severe smog in the Beijing region in recent weeks was likely that factories ordered to stop work for the winter had restarted operations.

"Local governments may hope to maintain growth and relax environmental controls on businesses - this is going to be a big problem," Mr Ma said.

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