By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - China can learn from U.S. struggles to reduce pollution as it confronts recent high-profile incidents of poor air quality paralyzing major cities, the top U.S. environmental regulator said on Monday.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy spoke ahead of a visit to Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese locations next week.
"While I am all too well aware of the severe air quality challenges that China now faces, I see these challenges as ones where the United States can truly speak from experience in support of China's efforts to reduce air pollution," McCarthy said at an event hosted by the Center for American Progress.
China is the world's largest polluter as measured in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
In late October, choking smog forced the northern city of Harbin to shut schools and the airport and crippled traffic for a time when an index measuring particulate matter in the atmosphere soared over a reading of 1,000.
The World Health Organization says levels over 300 are considered hazardous and recommends daily levels of 20 or less. The United States aims to limit readings of the particulate matter, known as PM2.5, to 35.
China's goals "are now to get down to the similar levels which the United States and WHO indicate need to be phased down (to) but the challenge is enormous," McCarthy said.
During the trip McCarthy plans to visit Beijing's air monitoring facility, which uses U.S. technology to capture detailed air quality information.
She said the availability of reliable and accurate air quality data will help officials in China's capital better assess air issues and help China develop appropriate plans to meet whatever air quality goals they set.
It will also give Chinese citizens better access to air quality data, as public unrest over air pollution and environmental degradation continues to grow.
Finding a solution to poor air quality has become an important issue for China's government, which highly values stability, because it ties into rising popular resentment over political privilege and income inequality.
It also threatens plans by some major cities like Shanghai, whose air pollution index on Monday surpassed 300, to attract foreign investment and multinational firms to its planned free-trade zone.
McCarthy said a public outcry for better air pollution controls in the United States before the creation of the EPA in 1970 was an impetus for stringent air pollution measures.
"Before the EPA and our landmark environmental laws in the United States, dark blankets of pollution covered our great American cities - not just Los Angeles but New York and Pittsburgh," she said in prepared remarks.
China's leadership has pledged to tackle air pollution using several different measures on the city, provincial and national level, such as slashing coal consumption, closing steel plants, restricting automobile usage and creating pilot carbon markets.
"For many years, China and the United States have had full and effective cooperation in the environmental field, which has played a positive role in the healthy development of bilateral ties," China's Foreign Ministry said in a faxed statement to Reuters.
(Reporting By Valerie Volcovici; additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; editing by Ros Krasny and Cynthia Osterman)