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China's government has once again pledged to reduce smog, seen enveloping Beijing in this December 2016 photo.

Keith Tan/Flickr CC BY NC ND 2.0

China pledges to cut pollution and boost food safety

BEIJING–China’s central government is laying plans to curb pollution, increase food and drug safety, and boost scientific research—though supporting details are scarce.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang outlined these and other major goals during the opening session of the National People’s Congress on Sunday. The congress discussions are not likely to result in new legislation specific to science but speeches by top leaders set the tone for policy over the coming year.

“Having reached the current stage of development, China can now advance only through reform and innovation,” Li said in support of his call to boost research efforts. China has “the largest pool of scientists, engineers, and professionals in the world, and their potential for innovation is truly tremendous.”

Li also noted, “Environmental pollution remains grave, and in particular, some areas are frequently hit by heavy smog.” He spelled out several pollution targets, including a modest 3% reduction in levels of PM2.5, the fine particulate air pollution believed most harmful to human health. He said the government will also strive to replace coal with natural gas and other cleaner heat sources in 3 million homes across China. And he called for “a reduction of at least 3.4% in energy consumption per unit of GDP [gross domestic product], and continued reductions in the release of major pollutants.” To enforce the curbs, pollution sources will be monitored around-the-clock and industry will be pressed to use clean coal technologies, he said.

“We will strengthen research on the causes of smog to improve the scientific basis and precision of the steps taken,” he pledged. He also promised to enhance emergency control measures, such as the 2015 color-coded pollution action plan under which a “red alert” triggers restrictions on vehicle use and industrial emissions when the air gets particularly bad. The measure has had limited impact on overall air pollution levels.

Li also promised to set specific targets to reduce soil and water pollution, including a 2% decrease in chemical oxygen demand in waterways and tougher controls on agricultural runoff.

Li also spoke to food and drug safety in light of a long-running struggle with tainted food and dangerous counterfeit drugs, many of which have caused health problems after being exported to other countries. In late February the State Council unveiled a plan to tighten food and drug safety controls, including lowering limits on antibiotics and pesticides in food products, over the next 5 years, an effort Li said requires “the utmost rigor.”