China's political elite pledged Tuesday to tackle the country's environmental crisis in the face of a public outcry over pollution.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the Communist Party-dominated national congress, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said health safeguards would be improved and efforts would be made to control air pollution and make water supplies safer.
"We should adopt effective measures to prevent and control pollution and change the way we work and live," Wen said.
The emphasis on environmental and health issues comes as China's leaders confront growing anger over choking pollution, contaminated food, and water that is unsafe to drink.
The statistics are staggering. China now burns 3.8 billion tons of coal each year, nearly as much as the rest of the world combined. China's CO2 emissions rose by 720 million tons in 2011 -- a 9.3% increase. Pollution and dust generated in China has been found settling in places as far away as California.
A heavy layer of dark smog has settled over Beijing several times this year, and as Wen spoke, the city was enduring its fourth straight day of "very unhealthy" air quality.
Maintaining blockbuster growth over the past decade has sometimes come at the expense of environmental protections. Beijing is also worried about higher fuel prices contributing to elevated rates of inflation.
The government has made explicit its intention to weigh environmental regulation against the cost to the economy. But analysts say the public outcry over pollution has tipped the scales.
"The political commitment to addressing environmental degradation and increasing energy efficiencies in China is real," analysts at Eurasia Group said Tuesday.
"The incoming leadership will seize this opportunity to demonstrate that it can act effectively on issues of concern to public opinion amid growing skepticism of the party," they said.