Beijing - China planned to take more than 5 million ageing vehicles off the roads this year in a bid to improve air quality, with 330 000 cars set to be decommissioned in Beijing alone, the government said in a policy document published yesterday.

Pollution has emerged as an urgent priority for China’s leaders as they try to reverse the damage done by decades of breakneck growth and head off public anger about the sorry state of the nation’s air, water and soil.

In a wide-ranging action plan to cut emissions over the next two years, China’s cabinet, the State Council, said the country had already fallen behind in its pollution targets over the period from 2011 to 2013 and was now having to step up its efforts.

As many as 5.33 million “yellow label” vehicles that failed to meet Chinese fuel standards would be “eliminated” this year, the document said. As well as the 330 000 cars in Beijing, 660 000 would be withdrawn from the surrounding province of Hebei, home to seven of China’s smoggiest cities last year.

According to Beijing’s environmental watchdog, vehicle emissions in the capital were responsible for 31 percent of the hazardous airborne particles known as particulate matter 2.5, with 22.4 percent originating from coal burning.

Beijing plans to limit the total number of cars on the road to 5.6 million this year, with the number allowed to rise to 6 million by 2017. Last year it cut the number of new licence plates by 37 percent to 150 000 a year and is also paying for another 200 000 ageing vehicles to be upgraded.

Beijing currently forbids vehicles that do not meet required standards from entering the city, but officials have admitted that China currently lacks the monitoring and policing capability to ensure all cars make the grade, and drivers have also found ways to avoid detection.

“Many vehicles have problems and many didn’t even meet the standards when they came out of the factory, and fining them on the streets isn’t the way to solve this problem,” said Li Kunsheng, an official responsible for transport emissions at the Beijing municipal environmental bureau.

The policy document also set new targets for the closure of coal-fired heating systems, as well as the installation of equipment to reduce sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions at power stations, steel mills and cement plants.

It said China was aiming to cut carbon emissions per unit of economic growth by more than 4 percent this year and more than 3.5 percent next year as it tried to meet a binding 17 percent target set in its 2011 to 2015 five-year plan.

In a report on human rights, China said its spending on energy saving and environmental protection last year rose 14.2 percent year on year to 338 billion yuan (R560bn).

“Focusing on solving the major environmental problems that seriously endanger people’s health, [China] investigated and punished harshly illegal pollution and environmental crimes, so as to safeguard people’s right to a healthy and clean environment,” it said. – Reuters