On December 5, 2012, China's Ministry of Environmental Protection ("MEP") announced its 12th Five-Year Plan on Air Pollution Control in Key Regions, which aims to dramatically cut emissions of pollutants in economically dynamic areas. This is China's first comprehensive pollution plan and comes at a time of growing social unrest due to worsening pollution levels.

The government has pledged 350 billion yuan (US$56 billion) to curb pollution in major cities by 2015. According to the MEP, China will reduce the intensity of fine particulate emissions (known as "PM2.5") by at least five percent in 13 major areas covering 117 cities. PM2.5 refers to fine particles 2.5 microns or less in diameter, which are particularly harmful to humans as they can travel deep into the respiratory tract to the lungs. For the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Province, the Yangtze River Delta, and the Pearl River Delta, areas most severely affected by pollution, PM2.5 levels will be cut by at least six percent. The plan also calls for a reduction of larger 10-micron particulate emissions ("PM10"), sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide by 10 percent, 10 percent, and seven percent respectively.

The plan focuses on the areas of the country that account for almost 50 percent of sulfur dioxide, nitric oxide, smoke, and dust, and explores ways to reduce the burning of fossil fuels, a significant contributor to climate change. A major obstacle to China's pollution reduction goals is the country's coal consumption. The MEP is responding to this by planning coal consumption caps in key regions, so as to phase out the use of coal-fired boilers and encourage the use of more efficient energy sources, such as renewable sources and combined heat and power technologies.

In addition, the plan contributes to China's broader commitment under the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) to invest in clean energy and climate change programs. Key targets under the Five-Year Plan include a 16 percent reduction in "energy intensity" (energy consumption per unit of GDP), increasing non-fossil energy to 11.4 percent of total energy use, and a 17 percent reduction in " carbon intensity" (carbon emissions per unit of GDP).

As China's economic development and urbanization continues, the need for heightened consideration for environmental repercussions has never been so clear. According to the MEP, high on the agenda of the 12th Five-Year Plan on Air Pollution Control in Key Regions is optimization of industrial structures and layout, as well as the setting of strict limits for projects involving coal-fired plants, iron and steel production, cement, and petrochemicals, all of which are heavy polluters. The progress of the plan will be reviewed every year after 2013, with a final assessment conducted in 2016. The extent to which the plan will affect future infrastructure and commercial investments in the country remains to be seen.

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