By David Stanway
BEIJING (Reuters) - China cannot relent on efforts to tackle pollution, though a rapid turnaround should not be expected, the environment minister told a news conference on Saturday during China's annual parliamentary meeting.
The country's environmental laws were still not as strong as its economic laws, and innovation was also weak, said the newly appointed minister, Chen Jining.
China would also step up international cooperation on the environment this year, he said.
China's myriad environmental problems are a sensitive issue with pollution often a flashpoint for protests. Even as Chen addressed reporters in Beijing, where the annual meeting of China's National People's Congress is being held, the city was cloaked in smog.
But local governments and industries are often reluctant to curb production and risk hobbling economic output in order to tackle big polluters. Last year, China's growth slowed to its slowest rate in 24 years.
Chen stressed the need for local governments to follow regulations and police to enforce them, adding that those authorities and enterprises that do commit violations must be held responsible.
If public anger about polluting industries was not handled properly, environmental problems became social problems and social problems became political problems, said Chen.
The government has vowed to reverse the damage done to its skies, rivers and soil during a three-decade dash for growth, putting its under-resourced environment ministry under pressure to deliver results.
Last week, China appointed Chen environment minister. He studied at Imperial College, London, and was appointed president of Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University in 2007. He served on China's National Environmental Advisory Commission but has had no previous experience in government.
(Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Robert Birsel)