BEIJING (Reuters) - Any failure to tackle China's huge pollution problems in the coming years could stoke public discontent and create "social conflicts," government researchers warned, underlining political concerns driving Beijing's war on smog.
With pollution identified as a major source of unrest, China's ruling Communist Party has promised to tackle a host of environmental problems brought about by more than three decades of breakneck economic growth, an environment ministry think tank said on Thursday.
The Institute of Environmental Planning, run by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, said China's economy has now "basically said goodbye" to scarcity and the state was now having to meet rising public demand for a cleaner environment.
"There is a huge gap between how fast the environment is being improved and the how fast the public is demanding it to be improved, and environmental problems could easily become a tipping point that leads to social risks," the institute said in a report published by the official China Environmental News.
China is trying to slash coal burning and has also threatened to close thousands of industrial enterprises if they fail to comply with stricter emissions and energy use standards.
According to official data, only eight of the 74 cities monitored by the Ministry of Environmental Protection last year met state air quality standards, and the government does not expect average pollution levels to make the grade until 2030.
But the institute said China's war on pollution was likely to become easier as a result of structural changes in the economy, with traditional heavy industrial output now peaking, though there could be unforeseen environmental consequences stemming from the country's attempts to diversify into new industries.
It forecast total energy consumption would rise to 4.3 billion tonnes of standard coal by the end of this year, up only slightly from 4.26 billion tonnes last year, and would rise to 4.5 billion tonnes by 2020.
The share of coal in overall energy use is also expected to fall nearly two percentage points to 63.3 percent at the end of this year and to about 56 percent by 2020, it said.
(Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)