BEIJING (Reuters) - China will cut emissions of major pollutants in the power sector by 60 percent by 2020, the cabinet announced on Wednesday, after world leaders met in Paris to address climate change.
China will also reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power generation by 180 million tonnes by 2020, according to a statement on the official government website. It did not give comparison figures but said the cuts would be made through efficiency gains.
In Paris, Christiana Figueres, head of the U.N. Climate Change Secretariat, said she had not seen the announcement, but linked it to expectations that China's coal use would peak by the end of the decade.
"I can only assume they are talking about the same thing," she told Reuters.
Researchers at Chinese government-backed think-tanks said last month that coal consumption by power stations in China would probably peak by 2020.
An EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday's announcement seemed to relate more to air pollutants than greenhouse gas emissions.
China's capital Beijing suffered choking pollution this week, triggering an "orange" alert, the second-highest level, closing highways, halting or suspending construction and prompting a warning to residents to stay indoors.
The smog was caused by "unfavourable" weather, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said. Emissions in northern China soar over winter as urban heating systems are switched on and low wind speeds meant that polluted air does not get dispersed.
The hazardous air, which cleared on Wednesday, underscores the challenge facing the government as it battles pollution caused by the coal-burning power industry and raises questions about its ability to clean up its economy.
Reducing coal use and promoting cleaner forms of energy are set to play a crucial role in China's pledges to bring its greenhouse gas emissions to a peak by around 2030.
Beijing has pledged to reduce the share of coal in total energy consumption to 60 percent by the end of the decade. It has banned the use of low-grade coals.
Premier Li Keqiang has said China would set an efficiency "bottom line" of 310 grams of coal per kilowatt-hour for plants across the country, according to the government website.
The average for the first 10 months of 2015 was 318 grams, according to official data.
"The efficiency target is in line with earlier emissions standards announced in 2014, but it tightens things up for coal-fired plants nationwide, without regional differences," said Yuan Jiahai, a researcher with the North China Electric Power University.
The cabinet also said that it would provide more financial support, including preferential loans, to help firms renovate. China already provides subsidies for firms that have installed the mandatory equipment.
China's delegate at the Paris talks, Su Wei, "noted with concern" what he called a lack of commitment by the rich to make deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and help developing nations with new finance to tackle global warming.
China's coal-fired power sector is notoriously inefficient. Utilisation rates have fallen nearly 8 percent this year to reach a record low, but surplus capacity could still be as high as 130 GW, or 14 percent of the total, industry estimates show.
Also, local governments continue to approve new capacity even as the country shuts outdated ones. Around 200 GW of capacity was given the go-ahead in the first half of 2015, while only 4.9 GW of small and ageing plants were shut in 2014.
(Reporting by the Beijing Monitoring Desk and Sue-Lin Wong in Beijing and Barbara Lewis in Paris, additional reporting by David Stanway and Kathy Chen in Beijing; Editing by Jason Neely and Himani Sarkar)