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Originally published Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 2:17 PM

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China sets up new rules for curbing air pollution

China has adopted 10 measures to improve air quality in the latest move aimed at responding to the dense smog that has repeatedly enveloped Beijing and other major Chinese cities in recent years.

The New York Times

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HONG KONG — China’s Cabinet has adopted 10 measures to improve air quality in the latest move aimed at responding to the dense smog that has repeatedly enveloped Beijing and other major Chinese cities in recent years.

Many of the measures previously had been enacted by some cities, or were the subject of national experiments that had not yet received the imprimatur of the Cabinet, which is known as the State Council. The measures, adopted Friday, were announced Saturday in state-controlled news media.

The newest and least-expected of them is a mandate that heavy polluters like coal-fired power plants and metal smelters must release detailed environmental information to the general public.

Ma Jun, the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, one of the best-known independent environmental activist groups in Beijing, said 5,000 of the country’s biggest factories account for three-fifths of its industrial pollution, but that the public knows few details about their emissions.

“In China, the factories can just discharge without letting people know,” he said. “If we can bring them under public supervision, it would make a big difference.”

Still, he cautioned that while national leaders may want a cleaner environment, enforcing tough pollution regulations at the local level could prove difficult.

The Cabinet also ordered that heavy polluters reduce their emissions for each unit of economic output by 30 percent by the end of 2017. But if the economy grows 7 percent or more a year, as forecast, the decrease in total pollution would be modest.

China has seen a rapid growth over the past two years in the number of environmental protests. Crowds numbering in the thousands have taken to the streets in coastal cities including Dalian, Tianjin and Xiamen to prevent the construction or continued operation of large chemical plants.

Coal-fired power plants have been blocked in southern China’s Guangdong and Hainan provinces. And rock-throwing mobs forced the cancellation of a copper smelter a year ago in Shifang, a town near Chengdu in Sichuan province, in western China.

The new 10-part program calls for greater cooperation among cities and provinces. For example, Beijing is trying to reduce its consumption of heavily-polluting coal, but the nearby city of Tianjin and adjacent Hebei province are expanding their already huge coal-dependent industries in sectors like petrochemicals and steel.

The Cabinet’s action includes some measures already taken by large municipal governments like Beijing and Shanghai. Both cities already require much cleaner gasoline and diesel, so that cars and trucks will emit less tailpipe pollution, and those policies are now supposed to be applied nationwide.

The State Council also called for more cities to prepare emergency response plans for heavy pollution, including traffic restrictions and limits on local industries.

It also ordered heavier fines for polluters and stricter requirements for environmental impact statements. Concerns about street protests over environmental disputes had already led the Cabinet to announce last November that it would require a “social risk assessment” before allowing major industrial projects to proceed.

Corporate leaders say the Chinese public has rapidly become more prone to question the wisdom of big investment projects, particularly in the chemical industry.

“This is quite fast, how this reaction has stepped up, particularly in China,” Martin Brudermüller, the vice chairman of the German chemicals giant BASF, said in a meeting with reporters in Hong Kong on June 4.

With the protests, he later added, “China becomes a little bit more like the West.”

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