BEIJING (AP) — China announced Thursday that it will ban new coal-fired power plants in three key industrial regions around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in its latest bid to combat the country's notorious air pollution.
The action plan from the State Council, China's Cabinet, also aims to cut coal's share of the country's total primary energy use to below 65 percent by 2017 and increase the share of nuclear power, natural gas and renewable energy. According to Chinese government statistics, coal consumption accounted for 68.4 percent of total energy use in 2011.
New coal-fired power plants will be banned for new projects in the region surrounding Beijing, in the Yangtze Delta region near Shanghai and in the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong province, the State Council said.
Martin Adams, Hong Kong-based energy editor for the Economist Intelligence Unit, said coal's share of China's energy consumption already was expected to fall below 65 percent by 2017 and that utility companies had noticed approvals for coal plants weren't being given.
Adams also noted that while coal would account for a smaller proportion of total energy production, the absolute amount of coal burning would continue to increase.
"There's less to it probably than meets the eye," Adams said of the new action plan.
"Of course, saying it out loud does send a signal that the government is serious about, at least, decreasing the rate at which coal consumption grows and about getting more renewables and natural gas and nuclear," he said. "I think possibly just as important, if not more important, is the signal that it sends to the Chinese people that, 'we are trying to control pollution levels on the eastern seaboard.'"
The government has come under increasing pressure from the growing middle class to clean up the country's air pollution, much of which comes from the burning of coal.
The State Council said the country's air pollution situation is "grim" and is "harming people's health and affecting social harmony and stability." The action plan calls for the density of fine particulate matter — a gauge of air pollution — in Beijing to drop by 25 percent by 2017 from 2012 levels and by at least 10 percent in cities nationally.
It aims to raise the share of non-fossil fuel energy such as solar and wind power to 13 percent by 2017. It was 9.1 percent last year.
Environmental campaign group Greenpeace welcomed the plan, saying it would set an important precedent that should be extended throughout China and followed by other major countries.
"China's political leadership has set an ambitious timeline to solve China's air pollution crisis, responding to the mandate set by the Chinese public, especially in the heavily polluted cities around Beijing," Li Yan, climate and energy campaign manager at Greenpeace East Asia, said in a statement.
"The targets can only be met by tackling China's coal consumption growth and the plan takes very important steps in that direction," she said.
Associated Press researcher Yu Bing contributed to this report.