BEIJING (Reuters) - Legislators have approved amendments to China's 15-year-old air pollution law that grant the state new powers to punish offenders and create a legal framework to cap coal consumption, the Asian giant's biggest source of smog. The draft amendments were passed by 154 votes to 4, with five abstentions, Zhong Xuequan, spokesman for the National People's Congress (NPC), China's parliament, told a media briefing on Saturday. The ruling Communist Party has acknowledged the damage that decades of untrammeled economic growth have done to China's skies, rivers and soil. It is now trying to equip its environmental inspection offices with greater powers and more resources to tackle persistent polluters and the local governments that protect them. The amendments are expected to make local governments directly responsible for meeting environmental targets. They also ban firms from temporarily switching off polluting equipment during inspections and outlaw other behavior designed to distort emission readings. Tong Weidong, vice-director of the NPC's legal work committee, told the briefing the law would improve the way local authorities were assessed and allow them to draw up their own plans to meet environmental targets. "Amendments to this air pollution law have strengthened pollution treatment from the source - from sources such as industrial policy, energy consumption and automobile pollution," Tong said. However, researchers said the changes do not go far enough and that the third reading of the bill should have been postponed until all its shortcomings had been resolved. Tong said such criticism was "very normal" and that it was impossible to include all proposals in the law. Chang Jiwen, an environmental researcher with the Development and Research Council, a government think tank, has described the new law as "not very useful". "It is filled with many slogan-like clauses and is more like a policy document than legislation," Chang told the state-backed newspaper China Business. He said many experts had said the bill should have been postponed. Lawmakers had rejected proposals to include specific coal consumption targets in the law and also ruled out a clause allowing local authorities to set their own restrictions on car use, the official Xinhua news agency said earlier this week. Wang Yi, head of the policy committee of the China Academy of Sciences and a member of the NPC's standing committee, has told Chinese media the law fails to set clear goals on emissions and air quality standards. According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, concentrations of hazardous breathable particles known as PM2.5 fell 17.1 percent in the first half of 2015 to 58 micrograms per cubic meter. China doesn't expect to meet the state standard of 35 micrograms until 2030. (Reporting by David Stanway and Kathy Chen; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Paul Tait)
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