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Two photos taken in the same location in Beijing in August 2005. The photograph on the left was taken after it had rained for two days. The right photograph shows smog covering Beijing in what would otherwise be a sunny day.

Two photos taken in the same location in Beijing in August 2005. The photograph on the left was taken after it had rained for two days. The right photograph shows smog covering Beijing in what would otherwise be a sunny day.

Chinese government officials must now consider the environmental impacts of their social and economic projects, according to an official report by Xinhua, the country’s state-run news agency.

Last week, the Chinese cabinet published a 35-clause guideline for pursuing an ambitious five-year plan to combat pollution, including a 40-45 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions (from 2005 levels) and an increase in the share of renewable energy generation. This falls in line with statements made by Prime Minister Li Keqiang, who declared a “war against pollution” last year after admitting that smog has become a “major problem” in the country as a result of “inefficient and blind development.”

Indeed, China’s rapid development has delivered major economic gains for the country at the cost of its citizens’ health. Approximately 670,000 premature deaths have been linked to inhalation of PM2.5 particles, a byproduct of burning coal that can lead to strokes, lung cancer, coronary heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Smog has also contributed to a more than 50 percent rise in lung cancer rates in Beijing, as well as soil degradation and heat waves.

As a result, Chinese officials will now be held accountable for not only the economic development in their jurisdictions (once the deciding factor in government promotion), but also the air, water and soil.

A Chinese woman wearing a surgical mask outside. (Image Credit: Nicolò Lazzati)

A Chinese woman wearing a surgical mask outside. (Image Credit: Nicolò Lazzati)

They will certainly have their work cut out for them. In 2014, 68 of the 74 major Chinese cities subject to air quality monitoring failed the national standard for clean air. In January of this year, the level of PM2.5 in Beijing was so high it jumped off the air quality chart.

Xinhua reported that Li has pledged to take “a firm and unrelenting approach to ensure blue skies, clean waters, and sustainable development.”

However, Wang Yi, head of the Institute of Policy and Management under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has voiced a cautious caveat. “The key for the next step,” he said, “is whether we can seriously implement the guideline.”

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