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China's Premier Li highlights pollution fight as NPC meets

China's Premier Li Keqiang said the government will do all it can to fight pollution as the country's environmental crisis occupies centre stage at an annual gathering of Communist Party top brass 

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(Image by Lu Guang / Greenpeace

China's Premier Li Keqiang said on Thursday his government would strictly enforce environmental laws and punish polluters as the National People's Congress (NPC) gathered in Beijing against the backdrop of growing public concern about toxic air, water and soil.  
 
The NPC, which is derided in the west as a rubber stamp parliament but in China is viewed as a forum for refining future laws, is likely to discuss a raft of regulations related to the country’s environmental crisis, although few new measures were outlined in Li's opening speech.
 
Li told around 3,000 delegates gathered in Beijing's Great Hall of the People that pollution was a "blight on people's quality of life and a trouble that weighs on their hearts".
 
"We must fight it with all our might," he added.
 
"We must strictly enforce environmental laws and regulations; crack down on those guilty of creating illegal emissions and ensure they pay a heavy price for such offences; and hold those who allow illegal emissions to account, punishing them accordingly," Li told delegates. 
 
Analysts said Li’s opening address would be closely watched for references to the environment following his declaration at the 2014 session of a “war on pollution” that one year on, shows few signs of being won.
 
Figures released at the end of January showed that there had been scant improvement in air quality in northern cities as measures aimed at curbing pollution in heavily industrialised provinces such as Hebei were slow to take effect.  
 
In a document that accompanied Li's speech, the premier outlined the following measures aimed at improving China's environment:
 
- To cut energy intensity by 3.1% and reduce emissions of major pollutants including sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides
- To cut the intensity of carbon dioxide by at least 3.1%
- Aim for 'zero-growth' of coal consumption in "key areas" of the country
- Introduce new legislation for an environmental protection tax
- Implement an action plan for preventing and controlling water pollution, and ensure the safety of drinking water
 
As most of these have been announced previously, the major challenge now for the Chinese government is delivering on its promises to improve the environment and implement new laws effectively.  
 
Top ranking officials have gathered amid a frenzy of popular interest in a documentary about smog, the appointment of a new environment minister, and the formulation of the country’s 13th five-year plan (FYP), which aims at a more sustainable pace of economic growth and speed up investment in low-carbon infrastructure during the period 2016-2020.

The economy, a widening anti-corruption drive and national security are also likely to dominate discussions at the NPC, according to state media previews of this week’s meeting.     
 
Proposals for new environmental regulations are unlikely to be revolutionary, said Trey McArver, who consults foreign investors on China’s political system and is an editor of briefing service China Politics Weekly .

"We won't see a whole lot of detail, maybe four-to-five paragraphs that set the direction of policy. Detailed policies and implementing guidelines will then be fleshed out over the coming months.”
 
Clean water, local environmental taxes on agenda
 
Moreover, there is also no guarantee that these will shape the country’s future policies.  "Last year the government committed to releasing a water pollution action plan, but until now the plan has still not been finalised," McArver added.
 
Delegates to the 'Lianghui' meetings told chinadialogue that measures to improve clean water and reform of environmental and resources taxes are likely to discussed at the NPC.
 
An environmental tax levied on polluting industries at a local level would be a more effective way of implementing environmental polices, said Jia Kang, a member of the Communist Party's central committee and former director of the Institute of Fiscal Science. 
 
The NPC meets as policymakers draw up the country's next FYP, but while the 10-day meeting will cover similar ground, it is unlikely to feed in directly to the formulation of broader, landmark economic and environmental policies. 
 
"The 'work plans' drawn up at the NPC are usually separate from the formulation of the FYP, which has been in progress for at least a year," McArver said. 

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