BEIJING -- The Chinese government announced an ambitious plan on Thursday to curb air pollution across the nation, including setting some limits on coal burning and taking old vehicles off the roads to ensure a drop in the concentration of particulate matter in cities.
The plan, released by the State Council, China's cabinet, filled in a broad outline that the government had issued earlier this year. It represents the most concrete response yet by the Communist Party and the government to growing criticism for allowing the country's air, soil and water to degrade to abysmal levels because of corruption and unchecked economic growth.
The criticism has been especially pronounced in some of China's largest cities, where anxious residents grapple with choking smog that can persist for days and even weeks. In January, the concentration of fine particulate matter in Beijing reached 40 times the exposure limit recommended by the World Health Organization.
Environmental advocates, including some at Greenpeace East Asia, said the plan did not go far enough, while others praised it for at least acknowledging some of the basic causes of the country's chronic air pollution. But there was wide agreement that the ultimate test would come in enforcement and implementation.
China suffers with some of the worst air pollution in the world, with outdoor pollution having accounted for 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, according to the 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study. Increasingly, air pollution is changing everyday life. Face masks are ubiquitous in the cities, and affluent parents increasingly choose schools more for their air filtration systems than their academics. The environment is emerging as a potent political issue.
For years China has had an array of strict environmental standards on paper, and its leaders talk constantly about the need to improve the environment. But enforcement has been lax, and the environment has continued to deteriorate at an alarming rate.
"The plan successfully identifies the root cause of air pollution in China: China's industrial structure," said Ma Jun, a prominent environmental advocate. "Industrialization determines the structure of energy consumption. If China does not upgrade its coal-dependent industries, coal consumption can never be curbed." he said. "The key to preventing air pollution is to curb coal burning -- China burns half of all the coal consumed in the world."
Under the new plan, concentrations of fine particulate matter must be reduced by 25 percent in the Beijing-Tianjian-Hebei area in the north, 20 percent in the Yangtze River Delta in the east and 15 percent in the Pearl River Delta in the south, compared with 2012 levels.
All other cities must reduce the levels of larger particulate matter, known as PM 10, by 10 percent. It is unclear why the plan calls for a looser standard for other cities, since the fine particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, is considered deadlier than PM 10, because it can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream
The plan said Beijing must also bring its average concentration of PM 2.5 down to 60 micrograms per cubic meter or less. That would be two-and-a-half times the recommended exposure limit set by the World Health Organization.
For years, Chinese officials kept measurements of PM 2.5 from the public. But many Chinese in Beijing turned to a Twitter feed from the United States Embassy to see the hourly PM 2.5 reading from a monitoring machine on the embassy rooftop. That, in turn, put pressure on the government to have cities start releasing their PM 2.5 measurements. Beijing began reporting PM 2.5 levels in January 2012, and Xinhua has reported that 74 cities are supposed to be releasing their PM 2.5 data this year.
On Thursday, pollution climbed to levels that the embassy rated "very unhealthy," with a PM 2.5 concentration at 6 p.m. at 178 micrograms per cubic meter. Much of the city's downtown skyline was obscured by a thick haze.
Coal consumption has grown rapidly in China, and the plan places only modest limits on consumption, with coal to account for no more than 65 percent of energy use in 2017, compared with around 67 percent last year. Some of the plan's critics said they were disappointed that there were no specific limits on coal consumption by region. The plan allows local governments to set those limits on their own.
"Instead of setting a goal to reduce coal burning for each province, the action plan gives each province the power to set goals for themselves, which leads to the goals being very conservative," said Huang Wei, who works on climate and energy advocacy at Greenpeace East Asia.
The plan addressed vehicle emissions by removing all high-polluting "yellow label" vehicles that were registered before the end of 2005 from the roads by the end of 2015. In the three regions with heavy industry, all such vehicles are to be taken off the roads by 2015, and the same for all of China by 2017.
In those three regions, gasoline and diesel of a high standard, China V, will be provided in certain cities. But the plan did not set targets for new vehicle emissions standards, which some environmental advocates say is a major omission.
"We had been waiting for months for the new action plan," said Ms. Huang. "We thought it might be a pivot point in history. Now it's here, and we think it has very much fallen short of our expectations."
Chris Buckley contributed reporting from Hong Kong, and Mia Li contributed research from Beijing.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.